As the global human rights community implores us to “build back better” in the wake of COVID-19, we must reflect on existing business models and human rights frameworks and analyze whether they are properly supporting the workers whose human rights they are designed to respect, particularly in times of crisis such as the current pandemic. In our previous columns, we detailed the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the two “historic” arbitrations that labor unions subsequently brought under it, and the Transition Accord that appeared to flourish in its wake.
Eight months later, and amid a global pandemic, we now have heightened insights into the status of the garment sector in Bangladesh and globally, and whether such mechanisms are truly fulfilling their responsibility to respect workers’ human rights.
Background on the Bangladesh Accord & the Transition Accord
The Bangladesh Accord is an agreement amongst over 200 global brands and retailers, labor unions and private companies, which holds the signatories accountable to developing a fire and building safety program in Bangladesh. It was developed following the disastrous building collapse in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured 2,000-plus others, and previous fires that had occurred in Pakistan’s Ali Enterprises factory and Bangladesh’s Tazreen Fashions factory.
Though the initial Accord was set to expire in May 2018, a Transition Accord was put in place to last until 1 June 2020, after which the functions of the Accord Office in Bangladesh transitioned to a newly established labor-brands-industry organization called RMG Sustainability Council, which will continue with factory inspections, remediation monitoring, safety training, and a safety & health complaints mechanism at the RMG factories supplying to Accord signatory companies. Per the Accord, these programs will be implemented in accordance with the protocols and procedures developed by the Accord, which have also been inherited by the RSC.
At the time of our previous publication, we questioned whether the Transition Accord would live up to the initial Accord’s mandate to respect workers’ human rights. Just before the outbreak of COVID-19, the office of the Transition Accord aimed to assuage those concerns by issuing its first quarterly report in February 2020. The report noted that more than 2,100 factories were inspected or scheduled for inspection, claimed 91 percent initial remediation progress across accord factories and boasted progress with workplace programs leading to over 1.8 million workers being informed of workplace safety and 552 complaints being resolved. However, as the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster passed, and COVID-19 began to sweep the globe, several competing factors led to a much grimmer reality.
The “Existential Crisis” Posed by COVID-19
As the world as we once knew it has severely changed this year due to the global pandemic, so too did the garment sector and the day-to-day reality of its most vulnerable employees. IndustriALL, one of the labor unions that brought the historical arbitrations under the Accord described COVID-19 as an “existential crisis for the garment industry” and noted that “social distancing measures taken in countries currently most affected by COVID-19 are driving wholesale closure of thousands of garment factories with millions of workers being laid off without a social safety net.”
The union warned that due to the spread of the virus, more factories will be forced to close, putting potentially millions more workers out of work. Substantiating these concerns, a recent Bloomberg report found that about 1,089 garment factories in Bangladesh have had orders cancelled worth roughly $1.5 billion due to the coronavirus outbreak. This “existential crisis” prompted increased scrutiny from investors who are calling on companies to take action on COVID-19 and to publicly disclose the steps they have taken, including promptly paying suppliers and ensuring worker health among other key steps.
COVID-19 as a Lens to Explore Garment Sector’s Progress
Using the seventh anniversary of Rana Plaza and the COVID-19 pandemic as lenses through which to evaluate concrete change, several recent articles sharply contradicted the optimistic first quarterly report. Specifically, the articles mirrored IndustriAll in noting that the spread of COVID-19 led fashion brands to mass-cancel orders already produced or in production, without considering the devastating impact of unpaid wages to the garment workers. A recent Forbes article noted that the responses from global brands have run the gamut with some companies, such as H&M and Uniqlo, agreeing to pay for the costs of work in progress or completed and other companies informing their suppliers that they have no intention of paying for work done.
Similarly, another article noted the parallels between COVID-19 and the Rana Plaza disaster. It observed that Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association’s President, Dr. Rubana Huq, has appealed to international buyers with the claim that, with $3 billion worth of orders canceled or paused by brands, garment makers will be completely disenfranchised, potentially leading to great social unrest. On this note, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre also chimed in that over two million mostly women garment workers have lost their jobs or been furloughed, many without pay or severance and that thousands of workers have staged protests over unpaid wages, risking infection due to the fear of starvation. To make matters worse, the BHRRC also stated that where factories remain in operation, workers are reporting being forced to work without adequate precautions, leaving them, their families and communities at risk of infection.
The Garment Sector and Human Rights Beyond Bangladesh
Of course, Bangladesh is not the only place where the impacts of COVID-19 are impacting the human rights of garment sector workers. A recent piece by The Guardian noted that factories in Cambodia and Vietnam are already closing due to a shortage of raw materials from China and declining orders from western clothing brands, and cited a warning from the Clean Clothes Campaign that factories are closing in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Albania and across Central America. The article particularly stressed the direness of the situation in Myanmar — where up to 10 percent of factories in the Yangon region are already closed, with workers not being paid their salaries — and in Cambodia, where tens of thousands of garment workers are likely to experience job loss if the flow of raw materials into the country does not pick up.
Much like the Rana Plaza disaster and the Ali Enterprises and Tarzeen Fashions factory fires, the COVID-19 pandemic is posing an incredible threat to vulnerable garment workers, the majority of whom are women. Global apparel companies should take to heart the lessons of these crises, use them as a catalyst to explore the efficacy of their existing human rights mechanisms, and listen to the call from investors to not neglect human rights even at the time of crisis. With increased scrutiny from investors and the global community, lessons learned from how companies are reacting now will be illustrative in how to behave in a post-COVID-19 — and post Transition Accord — reality.
Kayla Winarsky Green is an adviser on human rights and business at the Danish Institute for Human Rights in Copenhagen. Viren Mascarenhas is a partner in King & Spalding’s New York office, and is a member of the International Arbitration Practice Group.