Leading global fashion brands and trade unions agreed Thursday to continue a safety program involving thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh for another three years.
Two Switzerland-based global trade unions — IndustriALL Global Union and UNIGlobal Union — and brand representatives announced the agreement in Paris.
The current five-year campaign for fire and building safety expires next May and involves only European brands. Another group of North American brands is working separately to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh.
Following the collapse in 2013 of Rana Plaza, a complex housing five garment factories, global clothing companies joined the Bangladesh government in promising to improve safety standards.
The collapse, which killed more than 1,130 workers and injured 2,500 others, highlighted grim conditions in the country's garment industry, the second largest in the world with about 4,000 factories employing about 4 million workers and earning $25 billion a year from exports, mainly to the United States and Europe. Low wages in the South Asian country have attracted global apparel brands and retailers.
Since then, representatives from North American and European brands have visited the country's garment factories to suggest improvements or sever ties with factories that failed to improve.
The Bangladesh government has also hired more than 350 new factory inspectors and passed legislation setting up a workers' welfare fund and allowing stronger union representation.
As of Thursday morning, 23 companies had signed the new agreement, said Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary of UNIGlobal Union, which represents workers in the retail sector. But a large majority of the previous signers — 217 brands — are expected to be part of the new deal, which will include more worker training, she said.
The initial agreement covered about 2.5 million workers, Hoffman said.
"It's a remarkable achievement. Four years ago, we signed this agreement and some of the brands said this could be a one-off agreement only in the aftermath of a big crisis," Hoffman said in an interview after the Paris announcement. "In fact, we have proven that this is a model that works, that brands and unions can make change at the work site through classical industrial relations."
The new agreement extends building safety inspections for all covered factories, ensuring that safety improvements achieved under the first accord will be maintained and any new problems will be addressed, IndustriALL General Secretary Valter Sanches said in a statement.
Under the first accord, engineers carried out fire, electrical and structural safety inspections at more than 1,800 factories, identifying 118,500 hazards, of which 79 per cent were addressed, Sanches said.
He said the agreement "shows that industrial relations can be used to save lives and improve global supply chains."
Aleix Gusquets Gonzalez, head of C&A Global's external stakeholders' engagement, said 41 per cent of the garments sold by the worldwide chain of clothing stores are produced in Bangladesh.
"We need to make sure that our garments are made in decent conditions," he told AP.
"We don't think that doing things on our own, on a lone rider approach, will be the way of really solving the (problem). We are talking about endemic issues, issues that have been in our supply chain for a certain period of time and we don't have the capacity to just remedy it on our own," he said of the safety issues. "We need to include our natural counterparts and these are the representatives of the workers."
Jenny Holdcroft, assistant general secretary of IndustriALL, said a key aspect of the Bangladesh accord is putting tools for health and safety improvement in the hands of the workers.
"What they need is tools they can use," she said during a news briefing. These "give them power inside the factory," she said, stressing that the new accord further emphasizes the role of workers.
"Only workers," she said, can be "the eyes and ears in a factory."