There could be a thaw taking place between the Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
The bitterness and rivalry between the Accord and the Alliance, the two groups of brands and retailers that are working to improve factory conditions and worker safety in the nation’s apparel industry, appeared insurmountable on the ground over the past year. This was even though their fundamental agendas were the same: To make the industry safer and more sustainable after the collapse at the eight story building Rana Plaza in April 2012, in which more than 1,130 workers were killed.
But in the last few weeks it appears that the ice between the two groups is melting, and government officials in Dhaka as well as factory owners said they can feel a palpable change.
“It’s true that we are working closer together these days,” said Ian Spalding, adviser to the Alliance, which represents 28 brands and retailers including Target Corp., VF Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Gap Inc. that source from about 587 factories in Bangladesh.
On Thursday, the two are set to take a major stride forward with a joint request to the Bangladesh government for quicker decisions as they set out on new pilot programs for worker safety.
“The application to the Bangladesh government is to take forward the issue of implementation of the occupational safety and health committees for workers,” Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord, said. The Accord is a consortium of unions and 190 European and North American retailers and brands, which source from 1,446 factories in Bangladesh.
As the factory inspections have been completed by both groups — by the Alliance in July 2014 and the Accord in September 2014 — they have moved onto the second step, which includes the process of remediation, as factory owners fix the plants that have been inspected. The second phase also includes the formation of safety and health committees at the factory level. These are scheduled to begin with pilot programs in the coming months.
Government rules on the implementation of the committees appear to be unclear, and Thursday’s joint letter aims for more clarity on the matter. Wayss noted the importance of government participation. “The election of worker representatives is going to be a sensitive subject, I think, and requires a prominent role by the government. The government should be the one to publish the rules on labor law, how the elections are going to be held, oversee those elections and serve the regulatory functions if there are any irregularities in the elections. It’s important for the government of Bangladesh to step up and do that,” he said.
Spalding explained that the Alliance also has been pushing behind the scenes for the government to finalize the implementation regulations.
“It is taking a long time to finalize. The joint letter to the government is our collective way of trying to push,” he said, adding that the intention is to continue to move forward with several pilot programs regarding the committees. “Our pilots are really focused on one with the International Labor Organization’s Better Work program, another with SAI Bangladesh and Rapid Results Institute. A third will be with some of the trade unions we are working with. The goal of all three will be to experiment with different ways to building up the capacity to establish democratic elected representatives as part of the committee,” he said.
The two groups are working together in other ways. Spalding said the additional collaborations included sharing inspection reports, corrective action plans and joint meetings.
Reports of discord between the Accord and the Alliance have been widespread over the last year, but it has also been apparent that they share a common goal. There have been extensive negotiations about structural safety measures, such as column strength; fire safety measures — such as the need for fire doors and sprinklers — and electrical safety, including issues related to wiring and safety sockets. Talks concerning these issues also have involved the other stakeholders, including the government, the ILO and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
Over the last eight months, another important issue was the duplication of inspections in about 300 shared factories where brands from both the Accord and Alliance have production. The Accord later agreed to avoid duplication in the factories that had already been inspected by the Alliance. The issues of fixing these factories also appears to have generated more cooperation as financing the remediation becomes a bigger issue. Officials from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association have estimated that this would cost an estimated $250,000 per factory, or $3 billion collectively.
A bigger issue facing both sides has been the unstable situation caused by blockades in the country over the last two months.
“Our inspectors are able to travel mostly on the weekends and in limited capacities for inspections and factory visits slowing down the process of factory visits and discussions,” Wayss said.
Estimates from the BGMEA are that $20 million has been lost by factories in a two-week period alone, as factories run below capacity, struggle with shipments and global retailers curtail travel plans and meetings. “The supply chain in the country has been seriously disrupted due to the ongoing violence,” said Kazi Akram Uddin Ahmed, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
The Accord still has further inspections — the factories that were added by signatory companies to the Accord list after Aug. 15, 2014, were not included in the initial round and were scheduled for inspections starting January 2015. Meanwhile, the Accord has received 900 corrective action plans from factories with support from signatory companies and has posted more than 500 online. Of these, 598 have been approved by the Accord and 73 corrective action plans updated after follow-up inspection reports.
There are 52,605 safety issues that need to be resolved in the 500 that were published as of Dec. 1. The largest number of these are electrical issues. “Many factories report that they have remediated the majority of their electrical safety hazards, which the Accord will verify. This means that many fires have been prevented, because over 70 percent of garment factory fires in Bangladesh are caused by electrical malfunctions,” the report noted.
Last week, the new U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, visited the BGMEA offices for the first time.
She spoke about the role of the garment sector in driving social change, and about the need for the finalization of rules for the amended labor law.