On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed killing 1,133 garment workers and injuring thousands more. The members of the PLWF call for upholding labour standards in global supply chains and urge companies to assume their responsibility in enabling these.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds
The Rana Plaza collapse put the hazardous working situations of garment workers on the global agenda. Suddenly, the terrible pictures bridged the distance between garment manufacturers in Bangladesh and the consumers in the West, overcoming alienation for a moment. A decade has passed in the blink of an eye, and despite increased awareness and some progress being made, workers’ safety and well-being in factories remain at risk.
In the aftermath of the collapse, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, known as ‘The Accord’, was signed between global brands and unions. This agreement set legally binding requirements to create safe factories, and included real punishments for brands, retailers, and factories who do not take enough action. The governance of the Accord was challenged, and employer’s organization were included in the council overseeing the Transition Accord. In 2021, it expanded to become the International Accord with the explicit agreement for future expansion to other countries. As of December 2022, brands and unions signed an agreement to expand the Accord to Pakistan.
Treating symptoms and targeting causes
On the ground, factories need to be safe places to work for the people making our clothes. As such, we must hold the brands accountable, first as consumers who purchase their products, but also as investors who invest in the corporation. We must require their suppliers to uphold good labour standards in a legally-binding setting. Beyond safety at work, employee injury insurance schemes, decent work and compensation that assures decent standards of living is of crucial importance.
Beyond the implementation of human rights due diligence and passing requirements on suppliers, brands also need to realize the role, responsibility and power they have in the setting of global justice. Requiring suppliers to adhere to heightened standards requires investments, and human rights due diligence requires regular audits, which also need to be paid for. While the auditing fatigue is mounting, the capacity to bear the costs for it can differ significantly depending on the profit margins and negotiation power you have as a brand or as a supplier.
The Devil is in the Details
As such, it is important to highlight a few details from the Pakistan Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry. The governance was originally given to the Steering Committee of the International Accord, an organization based in the Netherlands, and only later was handed over to a national governance body in Pakistan. It is important, that the administration is local, and that employers’ organizations and unions have a significant seat at the table, in order to address the current power imbalances. Further in terms of the financial risk and burden, brands should assume the financial burden of investments needed for safety requirements and audits, and make sure that surplus effort and financial costs are not burdened upon suppliers. Another example of unequal risk distributions are the temporary factory closures: Beyond requiring their supplier factories to maintain workers’ employment relationship during temporary closure of factories, signatory companies (brands) need to assume the financial burden and business risk of those factories and ensure them continued business via long-terms commitments.
Call to Action:
As investors, we urge companies to sign the Accord and to make requirements on workers safety legally binding. Beyond that, however, we urge brands to review how they do or do not enable suppliers to live up to these requirements, by adhering to responsible purchasing practices, paying fair prices and committing to long-term business relationships with suppliers. While some important progress has been achieved since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013, the core questions for brands remains: How do you balance your own profit margins in purchasing departments against the possibility of suppliers to be able to ensure decent work in global garment factories?