Not much since the departure of Accord

During the pandemic, the RMG Sustainability Council did not inspect as many factories as it should have.

Kalpana Akhter, workers’ rights activist.

When Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh closed its operations in the country in May 2020, more than 1,000 RMG units were “overdue” to become “fully safe”.

Accord has assigned responsibility for making factories structurally safe and compliant with international standards to the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC). More than a year and a half later, the figure has not changed much.

At present, the process of total security is “in progress” in 1,039 factories, said Iqbal M Hussain, managing director of RSC.

The RSC was formed by brands, union leaders and factory owners as an independent, not-for-profit company and safety watchdog, authorized by the government to take over Accord operations at Bangladesh.

The Accord was signed weeks after the Rana Plaza collapse in Savar in 2013 as a binding security scheme, and more than 200 major brands, including H&M and Primark, pledged to source only from factories subject to remediation programs under the Agreement.

Around 1,700 factories have been listed by Accord for remediation programs, which have worked to make them structurally safe and up to international standards.

However, after a lengthy legal battle, Accord was forced out of Bangladesh in May 2020. On June 1, 2020, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) took over Accord’s operations. The 200-person body is responsible for ongoing factory inspections, corrective action monitoring and other workplace programs.

RSC and industry insiders said the hits the industry has faced due to the pandemic were largely to blame for the slow remediation process.

Meanwhile, trade unions, globally and nationally, have consistently argued that because the RSC is not legally binding, unlike Accord, there is no coercion on the part of factory owners to solve the problem.

After Accord’s departure, more than 70 factories on Accord’s and RSC’s list of factories have still not implemented even 50% of Accord’s recommended corrective actions, the RSC website says.

A handful of factories are just beginning to do their preliminary inspection after the RSC took over.

Iqbal M Hussain, managing director of RSC and its director of safety, said 373 of the factories listed “have not yet completed structural rehabilitation based on technical assessment” and 1,241 have not yet have their fire alarm systems checked.

By the time Accord left, nearly two-thirds of factories listed as unrepaired had implemented more than 90 percent of the recommended corrective actions, but even the remaining minor work can cause major accidents.

For example, in late January, a factory named Zaheen Knitwear Ltd in Madanpur in Narayanganj caught fire. The resulting inferno was so large that it took 13 firefighting units five hours to bring the blaze under control and sixteen hours to completely extinguish the flames.

Zaheen was a publicly traded factory with Accord, meaning it was eligible to receive orders from major brands such as the US Polo Association, Woolworths, Lidl and Target. It was also rated as “behind schedule”, but only a little work remained.

As it was a Friday, there were no workers in Zaheen and no casualties were reported; but to put into context the kind of disaster averted – four of the plant’s six units were engulfed in the fire.

Among the unresolved issues, Zaheen’s fire alarm system needed to be replaced, and fire doors and a riser system needed to be installed.

According to RSC inspection notes, the factory was asked to install them for the first time in 2016.

The factory was in the process of installing the standpipe system and importing the alarm systems and fire doors, but as of January this year it had not yet been completed.

Zaheen Knitwear executive director Misbahuddaza Misbah admitted they faced delays in securing the necessary corrective measures, saying the pandemic was also to blame. “We had to deal with delays in importing supplies, there was a worker crisis, and then the pandemic happened.”

Plant management was looking until June 2022 to complete the installation. RSC documents seen by the Daily Star said this was unacceptable.

“The corrective action plan should be completed as recommended by the RSC with immediate concern,” he added.

It was not fixed immediately. After the fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Zillur Rahman, Fire Director, said: “The plant’s fire safety system was inadequate. We had difficulty fighting the fire because the plant had no water supply.”

Similarly, a whole host of issues were flagged as resolved but had been pending verification by the RSC since 2019.

“During the pandemic, the RSC has not inspected as many factories as it should have,” said Kalpana Akhter, a workers’ rights activist, who heads the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity.

The CBC’s 2020-21 annual report outlines their problem. “The RSC operation experienced several partial stoppages [June to early September 2020 and March to May 2021] due to national lockdown and movement restrictions,” he said.

During the reporting period, of the 100 boiler safety inspections targeted, only 10 were carried out.

To compensate for the blocking of activities, the number of initial inspections on board new factories has been doubled, the report adds.

It also says inspections are prioritized, with inspections related to industrial accidents and safety issues taking priority, followed by factories ready for final approval.

Meanwhile, with almost a thousand factories to remediate, the challenge facing the RSC is enormous.

This is further complicated by the fact that the RSC cannot legally compel brands to stop buying from factories that are not making progress on remediation. The Accord had that power — but since the Bangladesh Accord was forced out of the country, it exists in the form of an international agreement called the International Agreement on Health and Safety in the clothing and textiles. This agreement entered into force on September 1st.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said the International Accord cannot be applied to Bangladeshi factories and the RSC will not join it either.

When the International Agreement was signed, the BGMEA issued a press release stating: “The clauses and paragraphs of any agreement signed outside of Bangladesh, which are directly contrary to the precepts of the laws of Bangladesh shall be null and void and have no scope to be implemented and the RSC would not operate beyond its mandate.

“The industry has zero tolerance for rollbacks on safety-related issues, although the pace of certification progress may not be as expected,” the BGMEA said.

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