Sunday marked the ninth anniversary of a collapse that shook not only the foundations of the Rana Plaza building but also those of the fashion industry, as the tragedy in Savar, Bangladesh highlighted grievances in other manufacturing countries as well.
Safe workplaces were unveiled as a myth, supported by everyday occurrences such as blocked exits, barred windows, extreme time pressure and insults and harassment by superiors, but also structural building damage and a general lack of safety precautions.
Soon, the industry came together to set an example in Bangladesh: “Made in Bangladesh” was to move from a mark of substandards to a trademark. Thus, factories were mapped for the first time, audited and action plans set in motion to address the repairs required. Bangladesh was supposed to become the safest garment industry in the world and factories like Denim Expert Ltd., for example, showed the way.
Here, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety stood out. They divided the factories among themselves and worked on upgrading them. However, both initiatives were initially limited to five years. While the Alliance ended after five years, the Accord was extended until 2020 and then handed over to the state supervisory authority RCC, or later to the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC).
At that time, about 1,000 units of Bangladesh's around 4,000 garment factories were late in taking steps to become completely safe. This process is still ongoing today; with the pandemic being partly blamed for the delay.
What has changed in the last nine years?
Transparency is no longer the strange word it once was, and fashion brands and retailers have realised that there are tangible advantages to not guarding factory names but exchanging information with others and working together to find new solutions.
The Corona pandemic was a case in point for long-standing relationships and good communication in the supply chain that allowed for modifying and dividing orders to relieve understaffed factories and to absorb supply shortages.
If this was not the case and if there were short-term relationships and little communication, this also meant little sympathy for the situation of the other party: Here, buyers canceled orders or did not pay for finished goods on time or not at all, which forced many factories to give up and brought garment workers to their existential limits.
An international Accord
The Bangladesh Accord has become the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment and Textile Industry, which operates out of Amsterdam and came into force on 1st September 2021. Independence from a specific country makes the new Accord more international, but also provides a loophole for not joining: The BGMEA, for example, says it could not apply to factories in Bangladesh, and the RSC would not recognise it either.
This brings the focus back to brands and retailers: if they make strict safety measures a requirement, including on-site verification before entering into new business relationships, and then adhere to regular audits, factories have no choice but to upgrade in terms of safety. Governments should subsidise these measures as they are expensive: around 175,000 to 260,000 euros (around 147,000 pounds to 220,000 pounds/188,000 to 280,000 US dollars) per factory, according to estimates.
A Supply Chain Act, as planned by the EU, is also a step in the right direction, as is the Garment Worker Protection Act, passed in the state of California last year.