It is crucial for the government, trade unions, and labour organisations to facilitate the process of improving the safety of workers
The last decade has been difficult for the garment workers of South Asia, especially Bangladesh and Pakistan. In three incidents involving building collapses and factory fires around 1,500 workers lost their lives. The three incidents were: Baldia factory fire in Karachi on September 11, 2012 in which 259 workers lost their lives; Tazreen Fashion fire in Bangladesh on November 24, 2012, where 112 workers were burnt and lost their lives; Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in which 1,134 garment workers lost their lives after an eight-floor building housing several garment factories collapsed. A common aspect in these incidents was that major global brands were involved in the production of garments in these factories. There were many other smaller fires and building collapses in many other cities of South Asia in the last few years where workers were injured and, in some incidents, a few lost their lives as well. Such incidents are not limited to any sector of industry.
Even before the 2012 incidents in Pakistan and Bangladesh, some of the international labour rights organisations, NGOs and trade unions in Bangladesh and global union federations were in discussion with major global brands to come up with an agreement on building and fire safety in Bangladesh. As a result, two international brands PVH Corp and Tchibo had already singed MoUs with labour rights organisations in 2012 on similar terms which were followed by many other brands for Bangladesh Accord singed later on May 15, 2013, after the tragic incident of Rana Plaza in Dhaka.
After the Rana Plaza collapse it became very obvious that something urgent needed to be done to change the unsafe practices of local factory owners and global brands. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was launched within a few weeks of the catastrophe. More than 200 global brands, working with more than 1,600 factories in Bangladesh, singed the Accord within a few weeks of the launch. The Bangladesh Accord consisted 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 (CAP), 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.
Under the Accord agreement, global brands and their suppliers were responsible to pay workers during remediation and maintenance resulting from inspection of the factories. Even though this was a historic agreement for safety of workers in the RMG sector, it was not free of weak implementation of the commitments by brands and factory owners and lack of political will on the part of the government in ensuring safety of its own citizens. During the independent inspections by Clean Clothes Campaign, an international organisation working for labour rights of garment workers, and one of the signatories of Accord as witness, it was found that some major brands like H&M were unable to fulfill their commitment for improving safety conditions at supplier factories even two years after the signing the Accord. This clearly showed that even if there is an effort from international organisations for ensuring the safety of workers, the objective cannot be achieved unless there is commitment shown by the national government for implementing its own labour laws.
After a couple of years of the continuation of the Accord and continued struggle and advocacy by international organisations, on August 25, 2021 promising news came about. The Accord was signed by international brands, retailers and the global trade union federations, which were signatories to the former Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This agreement has ensured continuation of the legally binding commitments to workplace safety in Bangladesh and is promising to expand the programme to other countries including Pakistan. The new agreement is called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry and has taken effect from September 1.
As it is clear from the name and commitments made under the agreement that it will pave the way for covering other garment producing countries around the globe. The new agreement is not only legally binding between companies and trade unions to make ready-made garments and textile factories safe for workers, it also advances the fundamental elements of the previous Accord including; respect for freedom of association, independent administration and implementation, a high level of transparency, provisions to ensure remediation is financially feasible, safety committees trainings and workers’ awareness programmes and a credible, independent complaints mechanism.
It is crucial that the government, trade unions, and labour organisations in Pakistan see the possibilities for welcoming such an agreement to Pakistan and facilitating the process for improving not only the safety of workers but also establishing garment and textile industry on modern safety methods. A free environment for labour organisations and trade unions is the most crucial factor in facilitating such a dialogue between global brands, global trade union federations, international NGOs and Pakistani NGOs.
Pakistan is relatively better placed in the global garment industry currently with lesser impact of Covid and having GSP Plus status. Welcoming gestures by the government and Pakistani industrialists for expanding the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry will not only be a step forward to ensure safety of workers but will also be a major factor in modernising the safety standards in the industry. Besides this, the government and employer have to show their commitment for better implementation of labour laws in Pakistan regarding freedom of association, minimum wages, social protection, old age benefits and occupational health and safety.
The writer is director of the Labour Education Foundation.