image: Igor Ovsyannykov (Unsplash)

image: Igor Ovsyannykov (Unsplash)

Over four years after the Rana Plaza tragedy, which killed more than 1,000 garments factory workers in Bangladesh, safety problems are still extremely widespread. Despite the formation of two retailer groups consortiums to address safety issues, poor working conditions and low wages continue to plague the garment manufacturing sector in Bangladesh, the second largest apparel exporter in the world, second only to China.

The first of the two unions, so to speak, is the legally-binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“Accord”), which is led by H&M and backed by adidas, Benetton, Marks & Spencer, and Puma, among others. The other major initiative, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (“Alliance”), is backed by retailers such as Gap, Target and Walmart.

Even with such landmark coalitions in place, safety violations run rampant and global retailers have consistently run afoul of the specifications set forth in the agreements, including agreements to improve building and fire safety in garment factories in Bangladesh in accordance with the Alliance, according to a number of trade unions, including International Labor Rights Forum, the Worker Rights Consortium, the Clean Clothes Campaign, UNI Global Union, and IndustriALL Global Union.

But as of this week, a development from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (“PCA”) in The Hague has given workers’ rights group a glimmer of hope. In a decision on Monday, the PCA – an arbitral tribunal that works to resolve disputes between United Nations member states, international organizations, or private parties arising out of international agreements – has allowed for two labor unions to launch proceedings against two global fashion brands for allegedly violating the tenets of Accord.

The PCA stated on Monday that the names of the two fashion brands that have been formally accused of breaching the Accord – by failing to compel their suppliers to improve the satefy of their factories within the mandatory deadlines and to help them to cover the costs to do so – “must remain confidential.” We do know that among the Accord’s signatories are adidas, Target, Hugo Boss, Puma, Benetton, Fast Retailing (parent to Uniqlo), G-Star, Mango, H&M, Sean John, PVH (the owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), Abercrombie & Fitch, Primark, River Island, and Arcadia Group (which owns Topshop), among others.  

The PCA decided that the claims set for in the two individual complaints, which were filed by IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, are admissible and within its jurisdiction. The court is slated to hear and decide on the cases in March 2018. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “The two cases will be the first that the PCA in The Hague judges under the Accord.” 

Jenny Holdcroft of IndustriALL Global Union told Reuters, “For any brand that isn’t in compliance, this decision sends a message that they cannot shirk their responsibilities to worker safety.”

“This decision is a win for worker safety and for accountability in Bangladesh’s garment industry,” said Christy Hoffman, deputy secretary general of the UNI Global Union. “The legally-binding nature of the Accord is a central pillar of its effectiveness.”