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What’s Next for Bangladeshi Workers?

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It has been 8 years since 1,129 workers died making your clothing at the Rana Plaza factory in Savar, Bangladesh. Americans never did one damn thing about it. Nothing at all. There was no pressure from the federal government. Nothing really from consumer groups. Nothing. No one cared. Well, I wrote a book on it, but it’s a niche book for the niche of people who actually do care. I still think it’s my best book though.

In Europe on the other hand, the response was more complicated. There was greater pressure in European nations to do something about this. Sure, it was limited. But it was something. This convinced European companies such as H&M and Primark to agree to the Accord on Building and Fire Safety that ensured basic building safety in the sweatshops. It has made a small difference. But it is about to end. And no one can agree on what to do now.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety, signed in 2013 by European retailers like Inditex, H&M and Primark, labor unions and Bangladeshi factory owners, was a landmark, legally binding agreement for the global apparel industry. For the first time, almost 200 international brands agreed to independent inspections at the factories that produced their products and to collectively contribute funding for safety training and some factory improvements. Any companies that violated the terms could be fined or expelled from the group. A second, less-constraining agreement — the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety — signed by American companies like Walmart, Gap and Target, was also rolled out the same year.

But with the accord set to expire, the hard-won safety gains set in motion by the agreements could be at risk. Brands, unions and local manufacturers have been squabbling in negotiations for a replacement deal. All want a say in how to police the $34 billion in apparel exported annually by Bangladesh.

On May 21, 10 days before the original expiration date, the unions publicly walked away.

And despite a last-minute agreement on Friday by the brands and unions involved to extend the negotiations by three months — along with the current accord commitments — the future of garment factory safety monitoring remains in flux at a critical time for both Bangladesh and the global fashion industry.

The biggest problem is that what is going to replace this is utterly worthless because it has no legal authority.

Unlike its predecessor, the new garment council has no legal authority. And after delays in negotiations caused by the pandemic, concerns — particularly from union leaders and nonprofit organizations like Clean Clothes Campaign — have grown about whether the council’s terms are robust enough to force brands and factory owners to push through the costly changes needed to protect their employees.

In recent months, Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union’s general secretary, said last week, the brands insisted upon “a new framework for the future” that does not include key elements of the accord, such as individual brand accountability and monitoring by third-party auditors.

“As Rana Plaza showed, self-monitoring by brands doesn’t work,” she said. “The brands are using the cover of the pandemic to seize this moment and create a new agreement, which gives a smaller piece of power to unions. But that’s not a feasible model without us.”

According to Christina Hajagos-Clausen, textile and garment industry director of the global union IndustriALL, there is a specific agenda motivating some of the European brand leaders to push for the new agreement: a desire to include American brands like Walmart, which are more wary of assuming legal liabilities and are not part of the current negotiations (the alliance was never legally binding). Currently, the only American organization involved is PVH, owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, even though American brands and retailers account for roughly a third of all garment exports from Bangladesh.

As per normal, the biggest problem with meaningful international governance is the United States. The European brands are demanding the American brands are involved. The American brands won’t be involved if it requires one iota of real commitment. Not enough consumers in the U.S. or Europe care to make any difference. The Bangladeshi workers have strong communities of solidarity but these are very poor people without much power.

As I’ve said many times, it needs to be absolutely central to American foreign policy to hold our corporations accountable for what they do overseas, including through their supply chains. The Corporate Accountability Act I’ve proposed at least gives a start of a framework. I am sure it will never happen as long as I live, but I will still go on pushing this wherever I can.

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