Safety Renovations Under the Bangladesh Accord: Progress and Problems

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova
Date:October 9, 2015
Re:Safety Renovations Under the Bangladesh Accord: Progress and Problems

I write to offer insight into recent developments on the implementation of building safety renovations under the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Much has been accomplished under the Accord: tens of thousands of individual building repairs, renovations and upgrades (from installation of fire doors to strengthening of structural columns) have been reported complete in more than 1,000 factories. At the same time, serious challenges remain. In particular, we are concerned about significant delays, at many factories, in the completion of safety renovations relative to the deadlines established by the Accord’s independent inspectorate – delays that are ultimately the responsibility of the Accord’s signatory brands and retailers.

As you know, the central purpose of the Accord is to ensure that necessary safety renovations are undertaken in all covered factories. The Accord sought to accomplish this by obligating the signatory brands and retailers (now more than 200 in total) to open their contract factories to independent inspection, to compel those factories to undertake the renovations necessary to address all identified hazards, and to provide financial support where needed so that this work can be completed.

Thanks to the yeoman’s work of the Accord’s staff, which now numbers in excess of 100 people, virtually all factories have undergone comprehensive inspection by leading international engineering firms and detailed, time-bound corrective action plans are in place at most of these factories. Based on the most recent aggregate reporting from the Accord, factories have reported completing more than 30,000 building improvements (related to fire safety, electrical safety and structural integrity). The Accord is carrying out follow-up inspections to verify this progress; to date, roughly 7,000 of these improvements have been confirmed. Every one of these improvements reduces the chances of death and injury to garment workers in Bangladesh. We are very proud of these achievements.

As we outlined at the WRC’s University Caucus meeting this spring, what concerns us is that many factories are behind schedule on at least some of the mandated renovations. This is clear not only from the internal reporting the WRC receives through its role on the Accord Steering Committee, but from the Accord’s comprehensive, factory-specific public reporting. Every Accord action plan is posted on-line, with all remedial actions and associated deadlines clearly enumerated, and these reports are updated regularly to reflect the completion and verification of each remedial item. These reports show delays of significant length, often several months or more, at large numbers of factories. 

We always anticipated that there would be delays in the renovation process and obstacles to overcome. The scope of the Accord is massive – more than 1,600 factories, employing well over two million workers, and requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in often complex building modifications. All of this work must take place in a country that has very limited infrastructure, does not manufacture some of the equipment the factories needed to complete the work (e.g., adequate fire doors), and suffers from political instability severe enough that it can disrupt the Accord’s field work for substantial lengths of time. 

At the same time, it is clear that the number of delays we are encountering cannot be fully explained by these logistical challenges alone. Instead, what we are witnessing is a failure on the part of some Accord signatory brands to fulfill their obligation to ensure that their factories get the required safety improvements completed in a timely fashion. Notably, we are seeing delays not just at factories producing for smaller, less well-resourced buyers; we are seeing delays in the supply chains of some of the Accord’s largest and most prominent signatory brands. 

As you know, the Accord is an enforceable agreement. The reason the WRC and other labor and human rights organizations advocated for an enforceable agreement was the track record of the voluntary corporate responsibility programs of the major brands and retailers in Bangladesh. These programs failed miserably to protect the safety of workers – despite repeated assurances by the companies that the programs were adequate and that critics were misguided in arguing that stronger approaches were needed. Given this history, and given the economic realities of the apparel business, we knew that brands would be tempted to evade Accord obligations that were financially and logistically costly, particularly as the memory of the Rana Plaza building collapse began to fade. Hence the need for mechanisms to hold them accountable to their commitments. We are now seeing some of the shirking of responsibility by signatory brands that we feared, leading to substantial delays in remediation.

Fortunately, the Accord contains mechanisms to address the problem. 

First, the Accord’s ground-breaking transparency commitments ensure that all concerned parties have access to detailed information on the state of progress at each covered factory – where delays are occurring, this is apparent to all. This information is being utilized by a variety of organizations to press brands and retailers to step up remediation efforts. One specific step the WRC and other labor rights organizations have taken is to issue a public report concerning remediation delays at factories supplying one of the most important Accord signatory brands: H&M, the largest producer in Bangladesh. The report, which you can review here, is based entirely on the Accord’s public factory-by-factory progress updates. Its purpose is to make the public aware that, despite the progress the Accord is achieving, there are significant ongoing challenges, including the failure of H&M and some other brands to fully live up to their commitments.

Second, the Accord obligates signatory brands to cease doing business with suppliers whose factories persistently fail to carry out mandatory renovations. And there is now a protocol in place for the Accord staff to direct brands to take this action, where the brands are otherwise failing to do so. This creates powerful incentives for both factories and their customers to come into compliance. 

Third, the Accord’s labor signatories have joint governance power and are involved in all organizational decisions. Speeding the remediation process is the primary focus of the labor representatives on the Accord Steering Committee and they have been appropriately persistent and energetic in pressing the issues, with significant positive impact on policy and on the priorities of the Accord staff.

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW, 5th Floor 
Washington DC 20005 
ph  202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
[email protected]