Eight years since a deadly garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh galvanized a landmark campaign to remedy life-threatening workplace hazards, labor advocates worry that safety standards could unravel to pre-2013 levels.
On May 31, the 2018 Transition Accord, an extension of the original five-year Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, expires, bringing with it the end of an era when 200 mostly European retailers, including H&M, Zara owner Inditex and Primark, held themselves legally accountable for maintaining safety and inspection standards at their supplier factories.
In five weeks, the agreement will be supplanted in full by the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), a tripartite body of factory owners, businesses and workers unions that has already taken on most of the infrastructure, operations and staff of the Accord. Without another legally enforceable agreement, however, labor groups say they fear the success of the Accord will be rendered meaningless and the industry will revert to the same voluntary self-monitoring model that led to the loss of a thousand lives.
The Rana Plaza tragedy, which killed 1,134 workers and injured thousands more, was entirely preventable, Kalpona Akter, a former child worker and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity said at a press briefing Thursday. Visible cracks had rippled down the walls the day before, and a structural engineer who was called in had declared the building unsafe. Though several shops and a bank on the lower floors of the eight-story building evacuated as a result, the managers of various factories threatened their workers with the loss of wages if they didn’t return the next day.
The disaster—the deadliest in the history of the garment industry—would not have happened had there been adequate safety measures and a strong monitoring system that included workers, Akter said. Since its establishment, the Accord has conducted 38,000 inspections at more than 1,600 factories, covering two million workers. In all, it has fixed more than 120,000 fire, building and electrical hazards. Without another binding obligation through the RSC, she added, brands may not feel the same sense of urgency—or responsibility.