Garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Settling some of the turmoil among apparel manufacturers in Bangladesh, meetings last week between representatives of the Bangladesh Accord for Worker Safety and the government clarified the path toward the Accord’s end in May 2018.

After meetings in Dhaka with the ministers of commerce and labor, representatives of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association, brand representatives and officials of global unions IndustriALL and Uni Global Union, an agreement was reached to prepare for the handover of the Accord to a national regulatory body. The Accord was launched in 2013 and grouped together more than 200 European brands and retailers.

Bangladesh commerce minister Tofael Ahmed said the Remediation Coordination Cell will continue the work of the two groups of brands and retailers — the Accord and the Alliance — that were formed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Rana Plaza apparel production complex in Dhaka.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is made up of mostly North American brands and retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target and Gap Inc. and has already revealed its intention to wind up after its five-year term ends in 2018.

A major point of contention in Dhaka over the last four months has been over the Accord 2018, an agreement signed last June to continue the group’s operations for three more years until 2021, with almost 50 signatories by mid-October. BGMEA members were displeased that the agreement had been made without consultation with factory owners, or the Bangladesh government.

Last week, a Bangladesh high court passed an order asking why the Accord should not be canceled for signing without the permission of the government, owners and workers. “It’s a one-sided agreement because the Accord did not take permission from the government, owners and workers before signing it,” observed Islam Neelim, a lawyer for the petition.

Factory owners were also displeased by the fact that the extension agreement had additional mandates, including a larger focus on worker protection, more severance pay to employees when factories shut or relocate for safety reasons and the right of workers to organize and join unions. It also intended to include suppliers producing home textiles, yarn, cloth and related products.

Despite the strong differences on the matter on both sides, an agreement has been reached that if the national regulatory body is not ready to take over the Accord’s work by May 2018, the overseas group would be granted an initial six-month transition period, in which it would be referred to as the Transition Accord.

Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary of Uni Global Union, said, “A goal of the Accord has always been to transition to a credible regulatory regime by the Bangladeshi government. The talks with the government show that it recognizes the importance of a safe ready-made garment industry, and we will continue to work with regulators to help enhance their capacity. We have an agreement that the 2018 Accord will operate until the Bangladeshi government is prepared to take over the responsibilities, as measured by agreed criteria. We will review progress every six months.”

Labor organizations have been critical of the lack of progress made by the Bangladesh government in making reforms to protect worker’s rights. Another agreement toward improving these was the Sustainability Compact signed shortly after Rana Plaza to promote improvements in labor rights and factory safety in the apparel industry.

In a new white paper released last week and sent to the European Commission, Clean Clothes Campaign, the International Trade Union Confederation, the European Trade Union Confederation, IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union stated that despite signing the Sustainability Compact with the EU four years ago, the government of Bangladesh remained in violation, “failing to make vital reforms required to ensure its garment industry complies with core international labor standards.”

“The Bangladesh government has had over four years, considerable technical and financial support and numerous opportunities to demonstrate their commitment to reform,” said Ben Vanpeperstraete, a spokesperson for Clean Clothes Campaign.

Separately, in another move related to the Accord, a unanimous decision by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague has bolstered the legally binding enforcement mechanisms of the agreement. The ruling, revealed last week, allows complaints lodged by IndustriALL and UNI against two leading fashion brands to proceed to the next stage of arbitration, where they will be judged on their merits. This is the first time the accountability structure of the Accord is being tested.

The claims against the global brands are that they failed to require suppliers to remediate facilities within the mandatory deadlines imposed by the Accord and failed to negotiate commercial terms to make it financially feasible for their suppliers to cover the costs of remediation.

The court has required that the names of the brands remain confidential.

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