image: H&M image: H&M

Leading global fashion brands and trade unions agreed Thursday to continue a safety program involving thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh for another three years. Two Switzerland-based global trade unions — IndustriALL Global Union and UNIGlobal Union — and brand representatives announced the agreement in Paris.

The current five-year campaign for fire and building safety expires next May and involves only European brands. Another group of North American brands is working separately to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh.

Following the collapse in 2013 of Rana Plaza, a complex housing five garment factories, global clothing companies joined the Bangladesh government in promising to improve safety standards. The collapse, which killed more than 1,130 workers and injured 2,500 others, highlighted grim conditions in the country’s garment industry, the second largest in the world with about 4,000 factories employing about 4 million workers and earning $25 billion a year from exports, mainly to the United States and Europe. Low wages in the South Asian country have attracted global apparel brands and retailers.

Since then, representatives from North American and European brands have visited the country’s garment factories to suggest improvements or sever ties with factories that failed to improve. The Bangladesh government has also hired more than 350 new factory inspectors and passed legislation setting up a workers’ welfare fund and allowing stronger union representation.

As of Thursday morning, 23 companies had signed the new agreement, said Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary of UNIGlobal Union, which represents workers in the retail sector. But a large majority of the previous signers — 217 brands — are expected to be part of the new deal, which will include more worker training, she said.

The agreement has so far been signed by Kmart Australia, Target Australia, Primark, H&M, Inditex, C&A, Otto, KiK, Aldi South, Aldi North, Lidl, Tchibo, LC Waikiki and Helly Hansen. A further eight brands, such as Esprit, Hüren, Bestseller, Wibra, Schmidt Group, N Brown Group, PVH, Specialty Fashion Group Australia have committed to signing it.

The initial agreement covered about 2.5 million workers, Hoffman said. “It’s a remarkable achievement. Four years ago, we signed this agreement and some of the brands said this could be a one-off agreement only in the aftermath of a big crisis,” Hoffman said in an interview after the Paris announcement. “In fact, we have proven that this is a model that works, that brands and unions can make change at the work site through classical industrial relations.”

The new agreement extends building safety inspections for all covered factories, ensuring that safety improvements achieved under the first accord will be maintained and any new problems will be addressed, IndustriALL General Secretary Valter Sanches said in a statement.

Under the first accord, engineers carried out fire, electrical and structural safety inspections at more than 1,800 factories, identifying 118,500 hazards, of which 79 percent were addressed, Sanches said. He said the agreement “shows that industrial relations can be used to save lives and improve global supply chains.”

But it was not without criticism as to its efficacy. For instance, in 2014, an inspection of Bangladesh garment factories was conducted in connection with the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between international trade unions IndustriALL and UNI Global, Bangladesh trade unions, and international brands and retailers. The round of inspections took place at 1,106 factories used by 150 Western brands, and resulted in the identification of 80,000 safety-related problems.

According to Brad Loewen, the Accord’s chief safety inspector, safety hazards were found in every factory inspected, with nearly 20 factories being labeled as bearing a heightened risk of collapse, and 110 other factories were deemed to have notable structural issues.

More recently, a New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights study revealed that Bangladesh has far more factories engaged in the global garment business than stated by its industry and millions of people working in them are exposed to unsafe conditions. While Bangladesh’s $25 billion garment industry has been in the throes of a safety overhaul since the Rana Plaza collapse, brands have been able to continue to sidestep regulations by subcontracting.

“Though global brands assert they have strict policies against subcontracting, in reality, millions of workers and thousands of smaller factories are producing their goods,” said Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, in a statement. “Working in these factories is often highly risky,” she said.

Just this year, the Awami League party (one of the two major political parties of Bangladesh), along with garment industry employers, have intensified their crackdown on apparel workers following mass walkouts over wages and working conditions in December 2016.

Early this year, the international media and giant international retailers, alike, voiced concerns about the situation in Bangladesh after tens of thousands of workers took to protest in connection with the conditions of their employment, namely the harsh conditions and poverty-level wages. The Bangladesh government and garment factory owners fear the eruption of such protest efforts will negatively impact investor profits.