It’s been two years of intense, sometimes bitter, and often rewarding negotiation. In that time, “the Accord” has become a casual term in Bangladesh, one that encompasses something previously unimagined in the global fashion industry: 190 brands and retailers coming together to ensure worker safety at a sourcing hub.
As the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety marked its second anniversary, a media conference and Webinar from the team in Dhaka revealed the first apparel factory that has completed all the repairs on fire, structural and electrical safety issues stipulated after a factory inspection.
“We are pleased to report that we have verified the first fully remediated factories where all fire, electrical and structural safety corrective actions from the initial inspections are complete,” said Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord. “They’re the first graduates of our inspection and remediation program. I have no doubt that the numbers will start becoming weekly if not daily or monthly as factories are completed.”
The process of fixing factories has been slower than expected. Wayss added that 20 percent of the problems in factories have been addressed so far.
Earlier, the Accord had reported some 80,000 safety hazards had been identified across the 1,500 factories that produce for the brands in the organization.
The Accord has been signed by apparel brands, retailers and importers from more than 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia; two global trade unions; eight Bangladesh trade unions, and four nongovernmental organization witnesses. They came together after the Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka that killed 1,133 workers and injured hundreds. Over the last two years, lists of factories have been drawn up, inspections at all 1,500 factories were completed last September, including 230 which are shared factories with the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety that is made up of more than two dozen brands, mostly North American.
The Accord has carried out follow-up inspections at 462 apparel factories and issued noncompliance letters to 35 units warning them that business ties would be severed for their failure to timely address the safety concerns in line with Corrective Action Plans, said Brad Loewen, chief safety inspector of the Accord.
“Following the warning, all of them have responded immediately on a positive note,” he added.
Wayss said that it was “unfortunate to note that the remediation progress had been very slow.”
He said that the number of inspectors was being increased to speed the process in the coming months and the team was responding to resolve each factory’s constraints, Wayss said.
Additionally, politically led blockades and violence had disrupted movement within the country, starting from January 5, slowing the process for several months.
During 2014, the Accord averaged inspections of 42 new factories a month, according to a report to its steering committee. But since the end of the first round of initial inspections in September 2014, follow-up inspections have been averaging only 27 a month.
There are other reasons for the delayed remediation, Wayss observed, including lack of understanding of the requirements, lack of will to remediate and some recurring issues – such as lockable gates continuing to be found during follow-up inspections, he said.
Financial constraints have been an important cause as well. The new standards require fire doors, sprinklers, hydrant pumps and safety equipment that is often not available in Bangladesh and needs to be imported.
As of April, 321 factories and companies had confirmed a finance plan is in place, the Accord had reported.
“Twenty-nine factories were considered unsafe enough to shut down. These were reviewed and some of them moved the workers to another existing factory, others fixed the problems by shutting down partial units. Out of these, only five have been really closed,” Wayss said.
He added that additional offices of the Accord would be opened in the coming months.
The Accord has a five-year mandate to implement the safety procedures in Bangladesh, which will end in 2018. A report of its steering committee meeting in Bangladesh in April said there are an estimated 150 new factories likely to be added to the Accord list through the next fiscal year and the group has budgeted accordingly.
Work has also begun on the formation of safety and health committees, with which the workers would be able to monitor safety in factories themselves on a continuing basis.
However, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association reacted sharply to the Accord’s work with these committees last week.
In a letter to commerce minister Tofail Ahmed, the organization of factory owners complained that the Accord was acting beyond its purview by stepping into the issue of labor management, including agitating workers on compliance issues with the help of worker activists.
BGMEA officials noted that it was the International Labor Organization, and not the Accord, that was expected to handle issues related to labor.
“These comments are unfortunate,” Wayss told WWD. “We meet representatives of the BGMEA regularly – their leadership and their technical teams – to help handle bilateral issues. We raise issues with them so our relationship with them hasn’t changed much, and it’s not helpful for them to write these kind of letters.
“We are doing our work in a respectful manner and feel we are working within our mandate,” he said.