Bangladesh is the fourth largest exporter of apparel to the US. Its garment sector accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports and employs over 3.5 million workers. These workers face some of the worst conditions in the industry, including poverty wages, verbal and physical harassment, retaliation for advocating for better conditions, and extremely unsafe factory buildings.
Since 2005, these unsafe conditions have tragically killed nearly 2,000 Bangladeshi workers in fire and building safety disasters—all of which could have been prevented. In April 2013, 1,134 workers alone died when the Rana Plaza building collapsed, making it the worst disaster in the history of the industry. Factories at Rana Plaza were producing for several major brands and retailers, including JCPenney, The Children’s Place, and Walmart. Many of these companies had audited the factory in the months leading up to the collapse—yet these audits failed to identify or correct the safety violations that would lead to disaster.
A New Model: The Accord
When Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013, the WRC had already been working for years to press apparel brands to fundamentally change their approach to fire and building safety in Bangladesh in order to bring about genuine safety improvements in their supplier factories there. The international attention following the catastrophe forced brands back to the bargaining table, and the WRC and our allies successfully convinced them to sign the historic Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord is the first modern legally-binding agreement between workers, factory managers, and apparel companies that requires brands and retailers to:
- Open their supplier factories to fully independent inspections by qualified experts and engineers
- Allow the results of these inspections to be reported publicly, in a searchable database
- Help pay for essential safety renovations
- Stop doing business with any factories that fail to make needed safety repairs
Additionally, the Accord outlines a complaint mechanism by which workers can anonymously report potential violations at their factory to the Accord. It also includes an enforcement mechanism by which legal action can be brought against non-compliant signatories.
The Accord represents a fundamental shift in how safety violations are addressed at garment factories. Previous corporate-led programs were voluntary and lacked both enforcement mechanisms and transparency. Under the Accord, brands and retailers are legally responsible for ensuring the workers who make their clothes work in safe conditions.
The Accord Today
Nearly 200 brands and retailers signed the 2018 Accord, which extended the original agreement for an additional three years. Signatory brands included three of the world’s four largest fashion retailers—H&M, Inditex, and UNIQLO. Together, these brands source from more than 1,600 factories in Bangladesh, which collectively employ over two million workers.
Inspections at these factories uncovered close to 130,000 safety violations, ranging from structural damage to unsafe fire escape routes. To date, the large majority of these safety hazards have been eliminated.
On June 1, 2020, the Bangladesh office of the Accord transitioned its functions to a recently established local organization, the Ready-Made-Garment Sustainability Council (RSC). While the RSC was set up to be, going forward, the implementing agent of the Accord’s prescribed safety programs in Bangladesh, it was never intended to replace the Accord agreement itself; the brand obligations under the Accord Agreement remained in effect and unchanged until the Agreement’s expiration on August 31, 2021—after the conclusion of a three-month extension.
Unions and labor rights advocates proposed a binding successor agreement to continue the Accord model in Bangladesh—where it has averted hundreds, probably thousands, of worker deaths and where many factories still need renovations—and expand the model to other countries such as Pakistan where garment workers' lives are routinely put at risk.
The successful outcome of negotiations in the summer of 2021 has ensured that the sweeping gains the Accord has delivered in Bangladesh will be maintained and extended. This new 26-month international safety agreement, which went into effect on September 1, 2021, maintains the vital elements of the ground-breaking model established by the Bangladesh Accord: legal enforceability of brands’ commitments, independent oversight of brand compliance, the obligation to pay prices to suppliers sufficient to support safe workplaces, and the obligation to cease doing business with any factory that refuses to operate safely. This model, which has saved countless lives in Bangladesh, will also now be expanded to other countries where workers’ lives remain daily at risk. Over 160 apparel companies have signed the new International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry.
The WRC's Role
The WRC continues to play a critical role in implementing and enforcing the Accord. As a witness signatory on the Accord Steering Committee, the WRC works with the Steering Committee members to ensure the principles of the Accord are being fully executed and that inspections and repairs are taking place in a timely fashion.