By Bjorn Claeson
Get ready to hear more about the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. For the first time since apparel brands and retailers started to contract production overseas, a sizable group of major apparel companies have accepted legal responsibility for workers’ safety in contractor factories.
The Accord, a binding and enforceable agreement between unions and so far 40 major apparel brands and retailers, is a radical departure from the voluntary, unenforceable and ineffective codes of conduct and social compliance programs companies have developed over the last 20 years.
The record for corporate voluntary social compliance programs has been dismal, and this year more so than ever. In the last eight months, more than 1,500 workers in Bangladesh and Pakistan have suffocated, burned, and been crushed to death making the most ordinary consumer good: clothing. Every worker who died made clothing for export, sold mostly by well-known brands and retailers. These companies assured consumers the clothing was made ethically, the factories audited for compliance and certified to be safe with decent working conditions. Yet, the factories were illegal, lacked building permits, and violated basic safety standards.
By contrast, the Accord requires companies to participate in and fund a program of independent safety inspections, remediation, and worker safety trainings with the involvement of trade unions. They must maintain commercial terms that enable factories to maintain safe workplaces and finance repairs. A Steering Committee consisting of an equal number of representatives of trade unions and companies and one representative of the International Labor Organization is empowered to decide disputes between the signatory parties. The parties may appeal Steering Committee decisions to an Arbitrator, whose decision is final and enforceable in a court of law.
Thus far only two U.S. companies have signed the Accord: PVH Corporation, parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger (the first company to commit to the agreement in March of 2012), and Abercrombie & Fitch. Gap has said it will not sign the agreement because it is enforceable in courts. Walmart has announced it will expand its own private, non-binding social auditing efforts with auditing giant, Bureau Veritas, rather than sign the Accord. The National Retail Federation said the Accord was a narrow “special interest” initiative and joined the American Apparel and Footwear Association in announcing another non-binding program that excludes unions and labor groups. That initiative, which reportedly includes JC Penney, Sears, and Macy’s, has not yet been made public.
The Accord is historic in requiring companies to take legal and financial responsibility for worker safety in contract factories and to work with unions as equal partners. In the United States, working conditions in the apparel industry improved significantly when buyers, contractors, and unions negotiated “jobber agreements” that recognized that the lead firm in the industry, the jobber, or “buyer” in today’s terminology, was responsible for wages and working conditions at the bottom of the chain. The Accord represents an opportunity to make similar advances for garment workers worldwide. It should be fully implemented in Bangladesh and expanded to other countries where garment workers work in unsafe conditions. Learn more and take action here: laborrights.org/safety.