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Bangladesh Talks Begin on Safety Accord

Discussions about how the IndustriALL accord will be implemented at ground level begin today when a five-member international delegation arrives in Dhaka.

While the main items are already agreed upon — with 80 retailers and brands signing onto a fire and building safety accord for the Bangladesh garment industry — discussions about how it will be implemented at ground level begin today when a five-member international delegation arrives in Dhaka.

This story first appeared in the July 30, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The group includes Philip Chamberlain of C&A, Aleix Gonzalez of Inditex, Christy Hoffman of UNI Global Union and Jenny Holdcroft and Monika Kemperle of IndustriALL, the union-led group that spearheaded the safety accord.

Three members of the delegation had some initial meetings on Monday, starting the process of really understanding and exchanging views that can enable the accord to become a reality.

The accord, which was signed in May, is a binding contract between 80 apparel brands and retailers, international and local trade unions and nongovernmental organizations and aims to ensure sustainable improvements to working conditions in the Bangladesh apparel sector.

“It was a shorter day today,” Hoffman told WWD, “and we will really begin the meetings in earnest after the complete delegation is here by tomorrow.”

She said that meetings would be held with government officials as well as with officials of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

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“The purpose of the trip is to explain what the accord means, how it will translate into reality. These are just the first steps,” she said.

Employers and government officials in Dhaka have an agenda they want addressed, especially the fact that they feel Bangladesh does not have enough of a say in the way forward.

“One of the top issues that will be discussed will be the inclusion of Bangladeshi representation in the steering committee,” said Atiqul Islam, president of the BGMEA.

Members of the steering committee include Kemperle of IndustriALL and Gonzalez of Inditex, as well as Melanie Steiner of PVH Corp. and Andy York of the N Brown Group. Dan Rees from the International Labour Organization is chairman of the committee.

Employers also told WWD that they would like to ensure better prices without being squeezed by vendors as much as they have been in the past and inspections and checks that do not have different checklists for each company.

“Sometimes it is just something as simple as the height or location of fire safety equipment, which has different stipulations by each retailer, and it makes it really hard for the manufacturer,” said Abaz Ahmed, who has a manufacturing unit for T-shirts in Dhaka.

According to the implementation program determined so far, there will also be an advisory board with broad representation in Bangladesh.

The delegation expects to follow up quickly on the plan to establish the foundation that will oversee the accord in the Netherlands with an office in Dhaka.

“We need approvals from the Bangladesh government, and we’re very hopeful that we can get it done within the next few months,” Hoffman observed. “We’re hoping that this could be facilitated to open as soon as possible, and that is part of the agenda for our discussions with government officials to help get this done very quickly, hopefully before the end of this year.”

Although employers in Bangladesh say they welcome the plan to “move swiftly to reduce severe hazards facing workers in factories” and complete inspections within nine months while undertaking factory renovations and repairs, they also fear the delays in shipments and in carrying out their orders that the entire process could result in.

The $20 billion Bangladesh garment industry has been facing a series of changes since the eight-story Rana Plaza collapsed in Savar in April, causing more than 1,127 deaths and injuring hundreds.

On Monday, workers protested outside the BGMEA office in Dhaka, claiming that they had been illegally fired from their jobs, demanding compensation and accusing their employers of torture. Such protests have increased over the last two months. The Bangladesh parliament this month passed the Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Bill 2013, which is aimed at protecting workers’ rights and ensuring safety.

“Were ready for change and to remove this distrust,” said a government official from the labor ministry, who requested anonymity. “But we want to be included in the terms.”