Fears for Bangladesh Garment Workers as Safety Agreement Nears an End

“The Europeans are trying to entice the North American retailers toward contributing more to collective safety monitoring by watering down accountability,” Ms. Hajagos-Clausen said. “At one level, of course we want more brands to sign up — after all, the same factories produce for both American and European and other international brands. But all that’s happening here is a reduction in the credibility of the overall program, making it impossible to use the agreement as a possible blueprint for global coverage at a dangerous time for garment workers everywhere.”

Faruque Hassan, the president of the garment manufacturers association, did not respond to requests for comment. And while some Western brands like Asos have said publicly that they would support a legally binding agreement, most were not willing to comment while negotiations were going on. H&M, the Swedish retailer that was instrumental in the creation of the original accord, is also a leader of the current talks and remains “committed” according to Payal Jain, H&M’s head of sustainability global production.

Ms. Jain said H&M “strongly supported” a structure involving trade unions, employer organizations and the government, as well as clear accountability for brands, and increased fire and building safety capacity within the country.

“We are confident we can come to good solutions,” she added.

Bangladeshi factory workers, already dealing with pay cuts and late wages, will be counting on it. Garment exports, which account for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s annual export revenue, fell 17 percent in 2020. The country’s apparel sector was devastated as brands closed shops during the pandemic and canceled orders worth as much as $3.5 billion, leaving many factory owners facing ruin. The industry has seen a recovery, but the future remains uncertain — particularly with continuing lockdowns and virus outbreaks.

Owners of small and medium-size factories have long said they have been squeezed by the investments needed to meet safety standards. Now, their finances are suffering further as many global brands continue to drive order prices down in a tough trading environment. Brands have also asked the factories to undertake costly new Covid 19-related safety measures.

According to Mr. Posner, while improvements have unequivocally been made for worker safety in Bangladesh, the work is far from over. While the accord and alliance reached roughly 2,500 factories, it is well known by the industry that there are more than double that number of facilities, including subcontractors. A significant proportion of factories in Bangladesh remain unsafe.

“As the world starts to open up again and demand picks up further, no one in this equation can afford to take their eye off the ball,” Mr. Posner said. “The legacy of the accord is at stake.”

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