How the Accord agreement formed to make Bangladesh garment factories safe workplaces has progressed two years on and a report on Accord signatory and schoolwear supplier Rowlinson’s Bangladesh factory.
By Laura Turner
27 March 2015
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is an independent agreement designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe workplaces.
The agreement was created in the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse on 24 April 2013, which led to the death of more than 1,100 people and injured more than 2,000. In June 2013, an implementation plan was agreed, leading to the incorporation of the Bangladesh Accord Foundation in the Netherlands in October 2013.
The Accord agreement consists of six key components:
1. A five-year legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure a safe working environment in the Bangladeshi RMG industry.
2. An independent inspection programme supported by brands in which workers and trade unions are involved.
3. Public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports, and corrective action plans.
4. A commitment by signatory brands to ensure sufficient funds are available for remediation and to maintain sourcing relationships.
5. Democratically elected health and safety committees in all factories to identify and act on health and safety risks.
6. Worker empowerment through an extensive training programme, complaints mechanism and right to refuse unsafe work.
Unique aspects of the Accord programme are its very high levels of transparency and legal enforcement. It explicitly outlines the process of dispute resolution in which the outcomes can be reinforced in a court of law. This feature is unique because previously established initiatives involving corporate accountability and labour rights were basically voluntary commitments. Many US companies refuse to sign the Accord based on the legal enforceability, fearing lawsuits. However, the Accord’s legal obligations do not differ much from other business contracts companies routinely close. The fact that over 50 prominent internationally operating companies from Europe and the US did sign the Accord, confirms this.
“In the past, many brands have launched similar initiatives to the Accord but have failed,” says Joris Oldenziel, head of public affairs and stakeholder engagement for the Accord. “Those initiatives were not legally binding, and their inspection reports were not published, which often resulted in inadequate follow-ups. All reports for the Accord are published and can therefore be monitored for improvements.”
PROGRESS SO FAR
Although approaching its two-year mark, the Accord is still in the early stages of implementation, carrying out safety inspections of the factories. The first batch of 1,103 factories were completed in September 2014, with a second batch of 200 now being assessed. After each factory has been inspected for fire, electrical and structural safety, the factory owners and signatory companies develop a Corrective Action Plan (CAP), which is published online after approval by the Accord. The Accord has a team of engineers who monitor progress and verify implementation of CAPs through follow-up visits. After these visits, the CAPs are
“This is really just the start,” says Oldenziel. “This is the stage at which the factories are inspected, not improved. We are keeping track of all the issues found on a database, which will then be updated accordingly as and when improvements are made. There are currently 11,000 issues that have been addressed but, there are another 60,000 repairs that have been issued and noted, mainly electrical problems.”
The Accord is achieving fire, electrical and structural safety in factories through such measures as certified fire doors and automatic fire alarm systems. By ensuring there are adequate and unobstructed fire exits and by removing excess flammable material from areas where staff are working. Other requirements are rewiring, and sealing of wiring, removal of dust and lint from electrical components, installation of additional circuit boxes and strengthening of columns. It also requests no excess, concentrated weight in factories and for sprinkler systems to be installed in buildings over 23 metres in height. These issues are all classed as “immediate measures needed” and are concerns that can be rectified without closing a factory. So far, the Accord has seen 110 factories that have fallen into this category.
Unfortunately, repairs are time consuming, especially if rebuilding or structural problems are involved. Fire hazards – where fire doors and sprinkler systems need installing – take a lot of time. Electrical repairs are easier in comparison and, as the majority of factory fires are caused by electrical faults, many accidents are already being avoided through fixtures taking place. Progress, undoubtedly, is being made.
The worst case scenario is if a factory is deemed too unsafe for production to continue, in which case the Accord will issue “immediate evacuation”. Luckily, this is a rare occurrence.
“When our staff go for the initial factory inspection, they take samples of the building’s concrete to test its strength,” says Oldenziel. “The quality of the concrete determines whether the building is deemed safe or not. If not, then a full detailed engineering assessment will take place.
“Less than two per cent of the inspections done so far have resulted in an ‘immediate evacuation’ scenario,” he continues. “This occurs when a factory is so dangerous that work can no longer continue – if the building’s structure is unstable, for example – and it will close until repairs have been made. It’s the last resort to close a factory for all involved – it’s not good for the workers, the factory or the brands and retailers signed up to the Accord.”
In order to induce factories to comply with upgrade and remediation requirements of the Accord programme, participating brands and retailers will negotiate commercial terms with their suppliers to ensure that it is financially feasible for the factories to maintain safe workplaces and comply with the remediation requirements. If building improvements are required, the signatory brands are responsible for improving safety conditions in their production units. How these improvements are financed is the responsibility of the brand – it either negotiates with its supplier, loans money, or pays for the improvements itself.
The Accord’s work is carried out by a team of 50 working in Dhaka, a figure projected to grow to 100 by the end of the year. Currently this team comprises engineers for fire, electrical and structural work and individuals carrying out factory follow-up visits, of which they will visit around 200 per month. Case handlers are responsible for liaising with the brands and factories and processing complaints from factory workers reporting dangerous working conditions to the Accord, which can be done anonymously. There is also training, leadership, and support staff.
“We have an office in Dhaka and will be opening another in Chittagong in the future,” says Oldenziel. “Potentially, further offices could open in areas where there are high numbers of factories to allow the Accord staff better access; travel is obviously an issue in those regions.”
The Accord will complete in May 2018 and, while considerable progress has been made, the road ahead is still long. What happens when the Accord reaches its end is yet to be decided. Various ideas of what could follow this initiative are currently being considered, much of which is theoretical at this stage, and dependant on what the programme achieves by 2018. Further discussions are expected as the Accord nears the end of its time line, as Oldenziel concludes.
“Factors that affect any future plans include how quickly we can get all the factories safe,” he says. “Because the Accord was set up partly due to lack of government inspection, we may, at the end of the process, hand over some of the inspection to the government. There is also the possibility the initiative is extended, or it could go to other countries. New and additional standards could be introduced or it could extend to new sectors. Currently it only covers the Ready Made Garment sector, but given our expertise, it could be rolled out to the textile and leather sector, too.”
Eleanor Moore, 19, is studying fashion buying at Manchester University. As part of her course she visited all of schoolwear supplier Rowlinson’s factories, providing a report on each. The following extracts are from her findings after visiting Rowlinson’s Bangladesh factory, New Horizon, for which the schoolwear supplier signed the Accord to ensure safe working conditions.
After spending four days in Bangladesh on work experience alongside senior management, as well as a QC officer, it was obvious why Rowlinson manufactures in New Horizon and why it plans to introduce WoolMix, a new product to be manufactured there. This is due to the skilful and low-cost labour, the efficiency of each worker, as well as the excellent organisation of garment storage and manufacture. However, the downfalls are the continual hartals (strike action), rising costs and the damaged reputation of garment manufacture in Bangladesh.
BANGLADESH GARMENTS – THEN AND NOW
In recent years, Bangladesh’s reputation for garment manufacture was damaged – arguably beyond repair – after media coverage of exploitation of workers and unsafe working environments, one example being the Savar building collapse, more commonly known as Rana Plaza. Rana Plaza was an eight-story commercial building located in a sub-district in the Greater Dhaka area. Originally intended for shops and offices, Rana Plaza owner Sohel Rana housed a number of different garment factories in the building, employing around 5,000 people manufacturing for a number of well-known brands.
On 23 April 2013, the building was evacuated due to cracks in its structure, Sohel Rana later stated the building was safe and if the workers refused to return the next day, a month’s pay would be withheld. On 24 April, the building collapsed at around 8:57am, leaving only the ground floor intact. A total of 3,122 workers were in the building and 1,129 were dead, the rest injured.
Post Rana Plaza disaster led to riots from garment workers throughout Dhaka as well as surrounding areas. Eighteen garment plants were closed down and strict new measures were set in place to ensure safety within Bangladeshi factories. Not only was the Rana Plaza disaster devastating to the workers and the country, it had a huge negative impact on the retailers who produced garments there. Rana Plaza isn’t the only example of unsafe working environments for employees, as throughout Bangladesh many factories were noted to be overcrowded and unstable due to heavy machinery.
The fashion industry response was the introduction of the Accord, with a deadline of the 16 May 2013 to sign and show support for increased safety for workers, as well as raising compensation for victims and their families. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a five-year legally binding agreement between international labour organisations and retailers engaged in the textile industry to maintain safety standards.
In October 2013, it was announced that 1,600 Bangladeshi factories were covered by the accord, representing around a third of the textile industry. The Accord uses a traffic-light system, which determines whether the retailer is permitted to continue to manufacture there – Green: The factory is safe and compliant; Amber: The factory is fairly unsafe and changes should be made for improvements; Red: The factory is unsafe and should be shut down completely or while changes are made, and the retailer is not permitted to work there.
To date, the Accord has carried out inspections at over 1,000 factories with over 150 retailers signed up, with 30-40 per cent of factories rated red or amber, with a cause for concern.
New Horizon was inspected by the Accord in 2014 under John Lewis, and passed the inspection, therefore receiving a green light.
Rowlinson Knitwear began manufacturing in 1935 as a family run business specialising in personalised schoolwear for the UK market. It works in partnership with stockists, rather than selling directly to educational institutions. Garments are purchased from a range of different countries, and products – such as polo shirts, knitwear, and sweatshirts – from the Philippines, China, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Egypt.
All international operations are managed by a full-time overseas company director based in Cambodia, as well as Rowlinson-employed QC staff in the majority of its factory operations. Rowlinson source knitted 100 per cent cotton and 50 per cent acrylic 50 per cent cotton jumpers and cardigans from New Horizon in Bangladesh, as well as an introduction of wool/acrylic jumpers in the near future.
New Horizon is a family business established in 2001 with around 450 members of staff. The minimum working age set by New Horizon is 18 and the working hours are between 8am and 6pm, with a 1.5-hour break each day, six days a week. A maximum of two hours overtime is allowed. The areas of work are samples, winding, flat knitting, linking, trimming, washing and drying, sewing and packing.
New Horizon is compliant to Rowlinson’s safety regulations as well as being inspected by the Accord, which deemed it a “safe working environment”. New Horizon has in place a clear fire evacuation plan, first aid kits and a safe working environment for all workers. It is also clean and well lit, necessary for the workers and the garments produced.
Quality checking in New Horizon is done just before washing on a light check, as well as before packing. Rowlinson’s own QC also works in the factory daily to ensure the quality is acceptable to the supplier’s standards.
New Horizon pays $70 per month, as set by Bangladeshi government as minimum wage. The four-year working relationship between Rowlinson and New Horizon has allowed the workers to become skilful in the manufacture of its knitwear, ensuring the quality of each garment is acceptable to Rowlinson and Rowlinson’s customers. Additionally, all yarn used is sourced in Bangladesh, allowing the process to be cost effective and fairly quick. Rowlinson has subsequently decided to introduce a new garment type in its product range, which will be made in New Horizon, confirming the high standard of the factory’s work on Rowlinson’s existing products.
Despite Bangladesh’s poor reputation for garment manufacture in the recent years due to unsafe factories and exploitation of workers, it is still a strong source for textile apparel, especially knitwear. This is due to its low-cost labour and the ability to source raw materials locally. The garment industry also provides millions of jobs for those living in Bangladesh and, alongside the introduction of the Accord, manufacturing here should now be seen more as a positive than a negative.
One of the positive aspects of the growth of garment manufacture in Bangladesh is that it now employs three million women who were previously unemployed, elevating the status of women in Bangladesh.
New Horizon has a close working relationship with Rowlinson after four years of working together as well as Rowlinson’s status as New Horizon’s only customer. The reason both work so well together are the consistent orders placed and the quality of each garment made meeting the quality specification the majority of the time. New Horizon has a 100 per cent record in achieving delivery to time. It is also deemed a well working, safe factory by the Accord, which complies with Rowlinson’s health and safety regulations, which is essential based on Rowlinson’s company values of Care, Trust and to Be Better. Despite the longer shipping times and expense on air freight and regular hartals, Rowlinson’s working relationship with New Horizon is a positive one that is made evident through the introduction of new garment type to be manufactured there.