Building safety in Bangladesh

© GMB Akash / Panos
From 1990 to 2013, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) has listed over 2200 deaths and 4000 people who have been injured working in the Bangladeshi garment and textile industry. The cause for this is the serious lack of structural safety of buildings and fire prevention. The worst tragedy in the history of the textile industry occurred in Bangladesh, on 24th April 2013. A total of 1138 people lost their lives and over 2000 were injured when the Rana Plaza collapsed. This drama is just a chapter – the darkest one to date – in a chronicle of predictable disasters. It is symptomatic of the appalling workplace safety conditions that reign in the clothing and shoe industries all over the world.

For many years, the Bangladeshi trade unions and international NGOs – including the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), coordinated in Switzerland by Public Eye – demanded the introduction of an action plan to make concrete improvements to safety in the workplace in Bangladeshi factories. In order to ensure that there would be efficient, sustainable measures of protection, an Accord on fire prevention and building safety was initiated in 2011. In 2012, PVH (Tommy Hilfiger/Calvin Klein) and Tchibo were the first companies to sign this agreement. But the fashion industry in general considered that improving safety in the workplace in textile factories was not on the agenda. In November 2012 and April 2013, over 1250 workers lost their lives in accidents caused by a lack of structural safety of buildings. Following these two new tragedies at the Tazreen factory and the collapse of the Rana Plaza, public pressure on textile factories in Bangladesh reached such a high level that several brands decided to take concrete first steps.

The Accord on Building Safety

Working with international trade unions enabled the CCC to find influential partners. And with their support it was then possible to draft an accord on safety that was broadly supported. It was signed in May 2013.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is the first legally binding agreement in this field. CCC played a decisive role in the drafting process, was a witness to its signature, and monitors and keeps a critical eye on its implementation.

This accord is an important landmark for the garment industry, as it is the first-ever legally binding agreement on the protection of health and safety in the workplace.

The programme aimed at improving building safety and fire protection is unique due to its binding nature, its scope, and the obligations and transparency to which companies are subjected

The accord was concluded by the international trade unions IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, several local trade unions and the big international brands. It includes both preventive aspects (such as independent factory inspections and works’ committees), and is binding. Over 200 brands have already signed it, and to date it is enforced in 1600 factories covering over 2 million employees in Bangladesh.

The implementation of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

The key elements included in the accord are:

  • Signatory companies must publish the full list of their sub-contractors in Bangladesh.
  • Public information on all factory inspections and corrective action plans must be provided.
  • Compulsory repairs and renovation work are to be carried out when sources of danger are identified during factory inspections.
  • Brands must also guarantee that expenses for work needing to be undertaken will be covered, including any payments made to cover loss of earnings, should the factory close down.
  • Companies are obliged to continue producing in Bangladesh for a minimum of two years following their signature of the accord.
  • Trade unions are to be granted free access to factories to carry out training on safety and labour law.

This pioneer accord provides the long-awaited and much-hoped-for improvements in this branch. This is the first time that companies have been obliged to publish the list of their sub-contractors in the country where the goods are made, and to perform inspections, to be carried out by an independent body. Furthermore, the corrective measures laid out in these inspections will have to be implemented by the factories, jointly with the brands. Another unique clause is that signatory companies commit, if and when necessary, to financially supporting their sub-contractors when they need to undertake repair work in their factories.

© Stefan Indermühle
The Accord holds the big fashion companies accountable: they can no longer hand over the responsibility for health and safety in the factories to their suppliers.

However, the corrective measures are slow to be implemented in most cases. This delay is partly due to the unstable political situation in Bangladesh, as well as a fair amount of ill will on the part of politicians, which makes collaboration between the various actors in the industry more complicated. Although an initial inspection has been performed in all factories, only a fraction of the required corrective measures have been taken.

Accord’s success at risk

The Accord was originally negotiated for a term of five years and expired in May 2018. A three-year extension to the Accord was negotiated, up to 31 May 2021. The extension serves to further advance on the efforts made to date towards better building safety in Bangladesh and forms a basis on which the work in this area can be progressed.

From the outset, the plan was for state institutions to take over the role of the Accord as soon as the requisite structures had been put in place. This took place early, in June 2019, following pressure from the employers’ association of textile factory owners and complaints lodged by individual textile factories. The work of the Accord office was taken over by the new state institution RMG Sustainability Council (RSC). The Accord remains in effect until May 2021, but the work and functions of the Accord office has been undertaken by the RSC since 1 June 2020.

For a long time however it was unclear how the new institution would set up its decision-making structure, funding and how assertive it would be. These factors play a key role in determining whether the provisions on building safety and fire protection stipulated in the Accord – which are legally binding – are implemented in textile factories in practice. Six months after the start of the RSC’s work, the Clean Clothes Campaign investigated whether the RSC would be able to effectively take forward the high safety standards in the Accord.

Our interim assessment is that the RSC needs to do significantly more in order to ensure safe textile factories in Bangladesh.

To date, the RCS is fulfilling neither the safety standards of the Accord nor the expectations with regard to decision-making structures, transparency and independence. For the sake of textile workers in Bangladesh, it is extremely important for the new RSC institution to work to the same strict principles and criteria as those set out in the building safety agreement.

Demands of the Clean Clothes Campaign

Bangladesh is the fourth largest country of origin for clothing that is imported into Switzerland. Yet to date Swiss companies’ contribution to the Accord is insufficient. To date only one Swiss fashion company has signed the extension to the building safety agreement, despite the fact that many more Swiss fashion companies use production sites in Bangladesh.

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) strongly recommends that all companies procuring their goods in Bangladesh sign the extended Accord. Signatory companies should also ensure that all recommended corrective measures in their sub-contractors’ factories are implemented.