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Will Horror and over a Thousand Dead be a Watershed Moment for Bangladesh?

Duncan Green's picture

​A huge and chaotic conversation over how to respond to the appalling Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh (where the death toll has now passed an unprecedented 1100) is producing some important initial results, in the form of the international ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’, launched last week.

I got a glimpse of the background on Wednesday at a meeting of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which brings together big brand retailers, including garment companies, trades unions and INGOs like Oxfam to work on wages and conditions in company supply chains. The Accord got some pretty rave reviews – ‘absolutely historic’, said Ben Moxham of the UK Trades Union Congress; comparable to the 1911 Chicago factory fire, according to one of the big clothes retailers at the meeting.

So what does it say? The Accord covers independent safety inspections, publicly reported; mandatory repairs and renovations; a vital role for workers and trade unions, including a commitment to Bangladesh’s Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety (a national initiative). A key, and controversial aspect is that the Accord will include a legally binding arbitration mechanism, which wins a lot of trust from civil society and trade unions, but has spooked a number of companies based in the litigation-tastic USA (not all though –  part of Tommy Hilfiger’s in there, while Abercrombie and Fitch have said it they will join).

30 companies  signed up ahead of Wednesday’s midnight deadline, including Primark, (who were buying clothes from Rana Plaza), Tesco, Sainsburys, M&S, Inditex (eg Zara), NEXT, C&A, Carrefour and PVH (part of Tommy Hilfiger). There are some holdouts – Walmart is insisting on going it alone and doing its own factory inspections, which is disappointing, not least because it is focussing on the short term problem and missing the need for longer-term coordinated political engagement. And of course, nothing legally binding there.

Given my current work focus, I fell to musing on the theory of change that underlay this apparent breakthrough. Obviously, the immediate driver is a particularly grisly ‘shock as opportunity’. But other factors worth noticing include:

  1. The ETI’s prior existence of a forum that established a high degree of trust between traditional antagonists (companies, unions and NGOs). This allowed people to get on the phone to each other and get things moving, without  first having to overcome barriers of distrust.
  2. Prior work on some kind of accord had been going on since 2011, but had got nowhere due to lack of urgency and trust – the Rana Plaza disaster massively escalated the pressure to act.
  3. A nascent national process (the National Action Plan for Fire Safety), that gave outsiders something to support and build on.
  4. Energetic leadership from two new international trade unions, IndustriAll and UNI Global Union, helped get the right people in the room.
  5. The organizers set a rather arbitrary, but very effective 15 May deadline to prevent the response getting kicked into the long grass. A number of companies are feeling bruised by the pressure for immediate action, so there will be some fences to mend there once the Accord is up and running.

An interesting underlying challenge, reflecting my ramblings last week on change, complexity and national ownership, is how to combine the catalytic effect of a massive shock, with the need for slow, painstaking construction of new/improved institutions from within Bangladesh – the only way to ensure that whatever emerges is not just another bit of corporate spin. Peter McAllister, ETI’s Executive Director, reckons that the circle can be squared if the shock is primarily used to get all the international actors lined up behind the Accord, but that the implementation process needs to be slower and nationally owned.

Next steps? The Accord lays out a 45 day period to come up with an implementation plan, involving a crucial shift from being internationally to locally driven.

The TUC’s Ben Moxham hopes the accord, and the ensuing government agreement to relax restrictions on trade unions, will help consolidate and strengthen Bangladesh’s chaotic garment workers unions (39 separate unions by his count).

Others at the meeting hope that the Accord could act as a model for both other garment exporters (Bangladesh is world number 2, after China), or for other sectors within Bangladesh – collapsing buildings are not confined to garment factories.

One last thought – in this conversation between companies, unions, NGOs and the ILO, where is the UK Government? So far pretty quiet, but you’d think that coming in behind a business-led response like this with some matching funding would be a pretty attractive ‘announceable’ for a Conservative Party minister, not least because the Accord could head off other short-term, and ultimately damaging exits like Disney, where companies stop buying from Bangladesh to protect their brand, but leave thousands of women without jobs. How about some constructive engagement, DFID?

Comments

Submitted by Vikas Nath on

It is unfortunate, though not surprising, that multinational companies and donor-funded NGOs view this recent tragedy killing over a thousand poor workers in Bangladesh in such narrow terms - reducing it to an issue of fire and building safety. The solutions proposed are equally simplistic calling for better compliance to safety codes, safety inspections, training and reporting.

Every worker needs to have a safe workplace - it is a non-negotiable issue. It is so important that workplace safety plans should be laid out at the start of any business, and especially one which would engage over 4.5 million workers and the top garment labels, as is the case in Bangladesh. Knowing very well that low-paid labourers who do not have other employment opportunities are at a higher risk of working in unsafe conditions, the companies should have made such workplace safety plans a mandatory requirement and an essential part of their supply chain. The garment workers in Bangladesh have been asking for safer working conditions for a long time but neither the companies nor those working for labour rights or ethical trade have taken up their call. Until this tragedy the workers were not even allowed to form unions unless agreed to by their company.

Agreeing to building safety codes and inspections after decades of letting workers work in perilous conditions and causing countless deaths and injuries, and one of which drew worldwide attention, cannot be a reason to applaud. It is a matter of concern that these companies could get away for so long and many of the international NGOs who are now sharing limelight and taking credit for this accord were silent on this matter.
These billion-dollar branded fashionable garment companies should have known better. After all, they print health safety warning on plastic bags covering their garments which says “This bag is not a toy” but do not give a second thought to the health and safety of the workers in developing countries employed in the factories. It would have been criminal for these companies to employ workers in such conditions in developed countries but the duplicity of standards remain unquestioned by all.

This fire drills approach coming after the tragedy has hijacked our thinking from looking deeper into systemic issues which are causing these low-paid workforce tragedies on a daily basis, and not just in garment factories or in Bangladesh but in outsourcing factories in India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and China.
Not all of these tragedies claim enough lives or have thousands of people on streets to get reported in the Western media. And this shock based approach works well for the NGOs to merchandise disaster and to raise funds. It allows them to become visible again as they look for quick fix solutions which assuage the conscience, and gives the impression to general public that what needs to be done is being done. In reality these steps distracts attention from the underlying issues which are leading to such “worker” tragedies, and continue to allow multinational companies to profit from the industry and silence of the poor.

These tragedies happen because conditions have been created to allow them to happen. The multinational retailers want to maximise their profits at all costs. This is done by procuring goods at the lowest possible cost and selling them at the highest possible price. This explains why goods purchased from Bangladesh get marked up almost 10 times or more by the time they are sold in branded shops in UK, New York or Paris. A garment sold for 45 dollar in western markets is procured for no more than USD 4 in Bangladesh. The retailers use their dominant positions to push down the procurement prices. As the retailers do not have long term contracts with the manufacturers, the threat to switch to other retailers who can offer lower prices and faster turnaround, brings out a race to the bottom. The manufacturers, not wanting to lose repeat orders, drive the workers hard. Workers’ safety, long hours, low wages and voices of workers do not matter when there are millions of unemployed willing to take up their jobs. Workers’ rights and safety becomes dispensable to keep the profits flowing. (For more information see the article at http://www.VikasNath.com )

The accord on fire safety which branded companies and international NGOs are applauding for is too little and decades late. And even this is not being signed by all the retailers as they fear it will make them more accountable and their business practices in developing countries will become open to review. The accord does not make it mandatory for companies to ensure that decent wages and benefits are being given to workers who are manufacturing their products. It falls silent on how these companies should engage with manufacturers so that they do not use their dominant position to start a race to the bottom. And it does not raise any concern on close nexus which companies form with local government officials and factory owners which silences the voices of the poor.

Correcting underlying reasons requires sustained efforts, earning trust of workers, listening to them, taking positions, negotiations, building pressure against offending companies, making use of laws and legislations, and working outside of the spotlight. And it is a difficult task, which does not yield publicity but improves the conditions of workers everywhere and makes multinational companies more accountable in developing countries. Unfortunately this approach loses out every time to the band aid solutions approach which exonerates the companies, brings funds to the international NGOs but forgets the poor workers, until the next shocking tragedy happens.

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