In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, the European apparel companies (not the major U.S. ones like Gap, Target, or Walmart of course) decided it was in their interests to take a small measure of responsibility for their contractors. This led to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, creating a team of inspectors that would identify and pressure contractors to fix safety problems in the sweatshops. Since there is some apparel company effort to see changes, changes are seen.
The Accord is the first legally binding agreement between apparel brands and unions where companies are obligated to pay for contractor factory upgrades. It potentially covers over 1,600 factories employing over 2 million workers. Elements of the Accord include an independent factory inspection program which involves workers and unions, public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports and Corrective Action Plans (CAP), a commitment by signatory brands to provide funds for remediation and to maintain sourcing relationships, democratically-elected health and safety committees in all factories, and worker training programs, complaints mechanisms and the right to refuse unsafe work.
How has the Accord turned out? The current Accord Progress Overview shows that as of December 2015, 1,358 factory Corrective Action Plans have been published, and 1,600 out of 1,660 factories have been inspected so far. Nearly 100,000 electrical, fire and structural violations have been identified and about 20,000 have been fixed. However, most of the factory CAPs are behind schedule. Still there is some progress here.
But workers and movement allies know that it’s not enough for the Accord to fix up factories. A recent ILRF report on interviews with dozens of Bangladeshi garment workers, Our Voices, Our Safety: Bangladeshi Garment Workers Speak Out, found that while workers view the factory repairs as important, the ability of workers to organize is crucial. The report states:
Workers report they will not be safe without a voice at work. Fire, electrical, and structural safety in garment factories is essential and will save lives. But these renovations and repairs must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety.
So there are minor improvements. That’s good. On the other hand, until Bangladeshi workers have real voices on the job, i.e., unions, they won’t really be safe. That’s going to take international pressure since it will probably require more action from the apparel companies. The best way this can happen, as the linked article suggests, is that you and I get involved in finding ways to support these workers, raise awareness, and spread information about the plight of these workers, demanding specific changes. That is what we need, pressure at home working with the workers overseas. This is why boycotts outside of those demanded by workers or buying your clothes at thrift stores to say you aren’t responsible for these conditions is not a useful way to act. We have to build solidarity with workers and act in order to improve their lives, not make ourselves feel righteous. Bangladeshi workers are making real demands. We need to support them since we are the ones wearing their clothes.
My question to readers and commenters who constantly defend the current system of globalization is to ask what you are doing to respond to the concerns of workers in Bangladesh and India and Vietnam and Cambodia. What would you tell them if they were in front of you? That their lives are so much better than they used to be so they shouldn’t complain so much?