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By Stephen Lee
A coalition of more than 70 clothing makers and retailers unveiled its next steps for improving working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry on the same day the European Union launched its own project for protecting Bangladeshi garment workers.
The coalition implementation plan, released July 8 and forged under a binding agreement known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, calls for the signatories to open their Bangladeshi factories to workplace inspections so serious safety hazards and the need for urgent repairs can be identified. The process must be completed within nine months.
Also under the plan, interim procedures will be developed for factories in need of immediate remediation.
If a signatory company fails to live up to the agreement, the accord includes procedures for binding dispute resolution.
“Now the real work starts,” United Nations Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings said in a July 8 statement. “The terms of reference and the rules of the accord are set in place. We can now identify the best people and put together the team in Bangladesh who will be charged with carrying out this vital work. These are exciting moments. The world is watching.”
The announcement comes on the heels of the Obama administration's decision to suspend Bangladesh's preferential trade treatment with the United States because of its record of worker rights violations (43 OSHR 650, 7/4/13).
More than 1,100 workers died in April when a garment factory collapsed in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka (43 OSHR 459, 5/16/13).
“This historic, legally binding accord will effect tangible change on the ground and help make the Bangladeshi garment industry safe and sustainable,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of global union IndustriALL, which represents 50 million workers in 140 countries and was also a signatory to the accord.
“Voluntary initiatives have proved insufficient, as 1,800 Bangladeshi garment workers have died in factory fires and building collapses during the past seven years,” Raina said. “A profound change is possible only with a strong coalition between trade unions, international brands and retailers, Bangladeshi authorities and employers, and with worker involvement in the workplace with guaranteed freedom of association.”
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), an outspoken critic of Bangladeshi work practices, applauded the plan in a July 8 news release as “encouraging” and a “responsible way forward.”
But Miller also noted that major U.S. companies like Wal-Mart and Gap “are charting a different course that, due to its lack of enforceability and absence of worker oversight, continues to put their profits ahead of the lives and limbs of the Bangladeshi women and men who sew their garments.”
Both Wal-Mart and Gap have said they will develop their own, nonbinding approaches to correcting safety problems in Bangladesh.
“The dozens of major companies participating in the fire and safety accord should show these outlier corporations that safe working conditions and healthy profits are not mutually exclusive,” Miller said.
U.S. companies that have signed the accord include Abercrombie and Fitch, Sean John, and Phillips-Van Heusen, which owns the Calvin Klein, Izod, Arrow, and Tommy Hilfiger brands.
Also on July 8, the EU announced a partnership with the Bangladeshi government to reform the nation's labor law in ways that will improve worker safety and the right to collective bargaining.
Under the initiative, known as the Compact for Continuous Improvements in Labour Rights and Factory Safety in the Ready-Made Garment and Knitwear Industry in Bangladesh, 200 additional safety inspectors will be recruited by the end of 2013 and structural building improvements will be made by June 2014.
“It's clear that we need to join forces to be able to improve the labor conditions for the thousands of Bangladeshi workers in the garment industry,” said Karel De Gucht, EU trade commissioner, in a statement. “This compact is the basis; now we need to make every effort to make it a reality so that another Rana Plaza-type tragedy in Bangladesh can be avoided.”
Separately, a group of 17 North American clothing companies and trade groups unveiled its own voluntary plan July 10 to improve worker conditions in Bangladesh. While the signatories to that initiative call it a binding accord, no sanctions for noncompliance have yet been detailed (see related story).
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is available at http://www.industriall-union.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/2013-05-13_-_accord_on_fire_and_building_safety_in_bangladesh.pdf.
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