The announcement to extend Accord – a legally binding pact set up in 2013 to ensure the safety of Bangladeshi garment factory workers but has been out of the limelight for more than a year – by two years has created discomfort among apparel exporters in the country.
The new agreement called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry will be officially signed between the brands and international labour organisations on Wednesday (1 September). But, factory owners have already started asking each other as to how the new Accord will work and what kinds of new pressures may come on them.
Labour leaders associated with the Accord, however, have expressed their satisfaction with the new initiative.
The issue came up for discussion at the board meeting of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) last Saturday. At the meeting, factory owners expressed their confusion and discomfort and urged the BGMEA to send a clear message to its members. Following that, the BGMEA issued a press release on Sunday.
The press release, signed by BGMEA President Faruque Hassan, said the Accord or any other body could not operate in Bangladesh without the approval of the government. In addition, no organisation but the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) has the legal authority to operate in the country to oversee the safety issues in apparel factories.
A director of the BGMEA, on condition of anonymity, told The Business Standard that brands and labour organisations have the whole work of extending the Accord secretly. "They will work with garment owners, but the BGMEA does not know anything about their activities."
"In the absence of the Accord, the RSC was doing well. Amid this situation, the sudden announcement to extend the Accord has created panic among garment factory owners. They have become perplexed again as the Accord caused a lot of difficulties for them."
"Their [Accord] recommendation for safety gears used to have strings attached, like the purchase must be from a specific firm. The specified company would charge us double than the market rates. And alone our purchases made those firms established," said the apparel makers' leader.
With a coalition of 228 foreign brands and buyers, the Accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh – also went by Bangladesh Accord – was formed in 2013 followed by the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse. It had supervised the structure of Bangladesh's apparel sector, fire and power safety issues for six and a half years with a five-year monitoring contract.
During the supervision, Accord developed several disagreements with factory owners and the government.
Accord handed over its tasks to RSC as it was formed last year. However, RSC has been running with Accord's policy, logistics and manpower.
International labour organisations, meanwhile, had been expressing concern over labour issues with the absence of Accord. Factory owners, however, seemingly did not expect Accord return after accumulating more power.
Two local labour leaders who are privy with the formation of the new Accord said the new Accord will work with issues such as human rights, health and freedom of labour association. Previous factory monitoring would be limited to worker safety.
Expressing satisfaction over the new Accord, local labour leader Babul Akhter said they are very happy since now there will be scopes for getting justice if an apparel worker is persecuted.
"Already 231 brands and buyers have signed the pact and more are in the pipeline," he noted.
In conditions of anonymity, another labour leader said, "BGMEA is kind of opposing the reality."
Khandoker Golam Moazzem, research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and an expert with a long time research experience on the country's readymade garment sector, said Accord actually is one of the stakeholders of incumbent RSC.
"Accord set to expire in August. Without an extension, it could not even be with the RSC," he added.
Despite Accord's extension, Golam Moazzem believes RSC should look after the apparel issues in Bangladesh. "If RSC wanted to add new issues to the jurisdiction, it could have talked to the ministries," he noted.
Established in 2013, Accord had 1,500 factories under its supervision as the US buyer-formed Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety oversaw another 600 apparel units. Later, Nirapon replaced the US supervisor.
Apart from the foreign initiatives, the labour ministry's National Initiative looks after around 750 factories.