Beyond the Agreement | The Daily Star
Eight years ago, one of the worst industrial disasters in history – the collapse of an eight-story commercial building in a sub-district of Dhaka – demonstrated to the world the high price of producing good clothing. market to fuel the ‘fast fashion’ industry for consumers. in the Global North. After the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, the international response focused on technocratic approaches to address the lack of worker safety measures by focusing on fires, electrical and structural improvements at some of the country’s registered factories. . The slogan of the Accord is: The Accord helps ready-to-wear factories (RMGs) in Bangladesh become safe – and stay safe – for millions of workers. Granted, 93% of factories have completed the initial process of correcting safety issues that were identified during inspections. After spending $ 11 million a year to support engineers and screening personnel, we have to ask ourselves eight years later, are garment workers in Bangladesh safer today than before?
The complex global supply chains, of which Bangladesh and other garment-exporting countries are an integral part, are characterized by hyper-flexibility, lack of transparency and uneven power dynamics, all of which are seen as core characteristics. to the functioning of these complex networks. These characteristics are not necessarily likely to promote – and often indeed undermine – respect for good labor rights. For decades, many global brands and buyers have been able to use their unequal distribution of bargaining power within these supply chains to force their suppliers to respond to competitive pressures within the industry by producing more. rapidly smaller batches of more and more varieties of products and at decreasing prices. .
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Researchers (Kabeer, N; Haq, L; Sulaiman, M, 2019) have found that since 2013, improvements have been made to the performance standards of some workers (mainly better health and safety conditions, relative employment and improved social benefits) and process rights (mainly representation in worker participation committees). This is important because it is essential that workers feel that their physical workplace is safer than before, unlikely to collapse or catch fire; and if there are any signs to the contrary, they are trained on how best to handle it.
Despite these gains, however, due to the power dynamics between different actors in the industry and the difficult nature of the work itself, female garment workers (especially female garment workers) continue to face challenges. sexual harm and suffering, gender-specific industrial discipline practices (including physical violence, verbal abuse, coercion and threats), severe health consequences, obstacles to freedom of association and collective bargaining, low wages, long hours of work and retaliation for reporting abuse.
Unfortunately, since 2013, the focus has been on a very narrow definition of what constitutes safety for the millions of garment workers in the industry. Adhering to this limited notion has been dangerous because it lulled us into complacency and released global brands from any real responsibility. This limited approach has helped reassure global retailers that they can continue to ‘go on as usual’, now that the buildings themselves are structurally sound, while pursuing a sourcing strategy that contributes to the decline. general mental and physical health of workers and leaves them. insecurity and without any social protection.
This lack of progress in many areas critical to improving workers’ rights has created a situation conducive to suffering in an unforeseen and unprecedented global crisis. A recently published report by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California at Berkeley (with support from UNDP Bangladesh and the Government of Sweden),
This global pandemic has brought to light the uneven power dynamics that have always been present in the system. Because the larger structure of the global supply chain was intentionally left intact after 2013, many of the statistics that emerged at the start of the pandemic, as 98% of buyers refused to contribute to the cost of paying partial wages. to workers on leave or 72 the percentage of workers on leave who were sent home without pay was unfortunately not at all shocking (Anner, 2020).
During the Covid-19 pandemic, already difficult conditions have been made even more precarious for the millions of people who depend on these jobs for their livelihoods. Many Bangladeshi factories supplying international brands have consolidated their activities and some have gone bankrupt. Bangladeshi workers suffered a 35 percent pay cut during the lockdown month. Millions of female garment workers found themselves out of work, on leave without pay, and their savings depleted (for example, the report finds 65% of female workers said they had not saved or used their savings to buy food) – all it happened without a safety net to fall back on. Not surprisingly, workers faced critical challenges to their mental health and general emotional well-being during this time; 82% said they were afraid something terrible would happen and 71% said they felt depressed, depressed or hopeless. Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity, told the authors that Covid-19 only accentuates what has already existed for so many decades.…all these years, business has given us empty promises, nothing more. They are always [focused] on their balance sheet, their closing reports. When we needed it most, they left us starving. They have not assumed their responsibilities. The transnational labor groups were successful in raising awareness among brands of the reputational risks to which they were exposed, and as a result of their activism, $ 20 billion was paid to suppliers in Bangladesh.
To bring lasting change to workers in the industry, as the report notes, responsibility must be taken at all levels of the supply chain. For example, the government of Bangladesh should enforce existing laws and standards, protect workers without a formal contract, enable them to form unions, establish grievance mechanisms and provide a safety net. Global brands need to make sure their actions don’t coerce their suppliers. They should supervise their factories so that international standards are met, avoid canceling contracts and paying for raw materials already procured and work already undertaken. Local suppliers, who bear direct responsibility for the well-being of their workers, should provide the necessary infrastructure to ensure safe working conditions and meet payout wages and other benefits required by local law.
This limited definition of what constitutes safety for garment workers has resulted in narrow and incomplete interventions over the decades and particularly over the past eight years, which have not only been inadequate but also detrimental. We have accepted limited improvements as significant and comprehensive progress. Today, as garment workers in Bangladesh go through the aftermath of a global pandemic, now is the perfect time to push for a more ethical and sustainable industry – one that strives to sever relationships of unequal power between global brands, suppliers and workers. In order to make a real difference for workers working in garment factories around the world, they must experience “safety” in the broadest sense of the term – a definition, if properly understood, would be. one that would encompass the protection of their health and well-being. and livelihoods.
Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, PhD is Director of the Subir and Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies, University of California, Berkeley, and Editor-in-Chief of Labor, global supply chains and the garment industry in South Asia: Bangladesh after Rana Plaza (Routeledge, 2020).