Until Western Brands Take a Stand, the Lives of Bangladeshi Garment Workers Are at Risk
With Black Friday and Cyber Monday behind us, and the holiday shopping season in full swing, spare a moment as you browse for purchases to consider the situation in Bangladesh. As you may know, or will discover if you check the tags on your clothing, much of the apparel sold in the United States is made in Bangladesh; fast fashion brands are particularly fond of sourcing from the country, as it’s incredibly cheap to produce there, and fully 82 percent of the Bangladeshi economy is dedicated to garment production (and affiliated labor.) As you may also know, conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh more or less suck, and now there’s a good chance conditions are about to get a lot more suck-y.
This week, the High Court of Bangladesh will decide whether or not to close down the Dhaka office of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and evict its inspectors. The Accord came into being after the 2012 collapse of Rana Plaza, a disaster that killed over a thousand workers employed at the several small garment factories housed there, and injured double that; it’s a legally-binding agreement among brands, retailers, and trade unions designed to build a safe Bangladeshi garment industry. Over the past five years, the Accord has been instrumental in forcing improvements in the factories that supply its signatory companies, which include H&M, Arcadia Group (owner of Topshop), and Inditex (owner of Zara.) The Accord isn’t perfect—it doesn’t cover all the factories in Bangladesh, for starters, and there remain gaping loopholes for Western brands, who can claim ignorance when their factories-of-record subcontract orders to firms that operate in the shadows. Nevertheless, The Accord has been effective, enough so that the agreement was renewed, this year, for another five-year term.
As Ineke Zeldenrust, International Director of the Clean Clothes Campaign, explains, factory owners in Bangladesh began advocating for government takeover of the compliance process earlier this year, as the initial term of The Accord was set to expire. Coincidentally, or not, that pushback followed a fierce government crackdown on garment worker activism—a crackdown that continued as, this fall, the government, workers, and factory owners renegotiated the country’s paltry minimum wage. “What the factory owners and the government are saying is, we’re a sovereign nation, and we can and should do this ourselves,” says Zeldenrust. “Bangladesh does have its own inspection regime, but no one outside the government believes it’s ready to take over The Accord’s work. Even if they have the will to do it, they just don’t have the capacity.”
There’s a close-knit relationship between garment factory owners in Bangladesh and both of the major parties currently contesting the country’s upcoming national election. Which is no surprise, considering the importance of the sector to the nation’s economy, but it does raise suspicion that a government-directed inspection regime will fall far short of The Accord’s efforts. In addition, because The Accord is a legally binding agreement among brands, it has the ability to force compliance at both ends of the supply chain, seeing not only that factories improve conditions, but that brands support these often-costly improvements and discontinue sourcing from factories that remain subpar. According to Zeldenrust, Clean Clothes Campaign is urging The Accord’s signatory companies to stipulate that upcoming orders are contingent on The Accord office remaining open, and its inspectors continuing their work.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Zeldenrust notes. “The commercial consequences of no orders, or fewer orders—that’s how we’ll see a change.”
Some brands have been speaking out. As Luis Gonzaga, Esprit’s head of global supply, wrote in a letter to suppliers, “activism in key market countries could make the Bangladesh brand toxic to consumers in spite of the tremendous improvements that we have achieved in recent years.” In other words: Beware, lest retrenchment on worker safety in Bangladesh inspire the people who buy clothes to pressure brands to stop doing business in the country.
Factory owners, meanwhile, seem sanguine about that possibility. For example, Rubana Huq, owner of one of Bangladesh’s largest manufacturing groups, pointed out to The Guardian that “no brand which sources substantially from Bangladesh can afford to shift quantities overnight.” That may be true, but it’s only the threat of economic disruption that will force positive change—as was proven in the wake of Rana Plaza.
“What’s going on right now is, brands make a lot of demands, but they aren’t paying for them,” says April Gu, Associate Director of the Center for Business and Human Rights. “And there’s confusion on the ground, about things like, what doors does a factory have to install, to pass inspection? So put yourself in the position of a factory owner: Of course they’re going to want more control.”
These factory owners are likewise no doubt aware of what Gu and her colleagues observed as they completed a recent study of the Bangladeshi garment sector, which is that Western brands who say they’re committed to the principles of The Accord happily turn a blind-eye to subcontracting. “It’s an open secret,” Gu notes. “I mean, at one subcontracting factory we visited, there was a quality control inspector on the floor, from the Accord-covered supplier. Brands know that’s going on; they know there’s this two-tier system that’s developed. Frankly,” she adds, “the fast fashion business model relies on it, because the supply chain has to be flexible enough to accommodate large orders that come in at the last minute.”
Gu says that The Center for Business and Human Rights wants The Accord office in Bangladesh to remain open, and for its inspectors to continue doing their work. But she goes on to note that, at some point, now or later, The Accord will “fade away,” and if people care about the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers, there has to be an honest conversation about how our clothes are being made, and what it’s really going to cost brands—and, by extension, consumers—to guarantee that conditions for workers are humane. Ultimately, she says, it’s up to the companies reaping the profits to create the change.
“The world’s attention needs to be on businesses producing in Bangladesh,” echoes Livia Firth, founder of Eco-Age. “They need to know that the international community is looking at them to solve this problem, since they are the ones the creating the issues.”
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