Three years on from Rana Plaza: How The Bangladesh Accord plans to leave a positive supply chain legacy
Three years on from the Rana Plaza tragedy, edie's Matt Mace speaks to the executive director of the Bangladesh Accord Rob Wayss on why the seemingly "slow movement" of improving safety standards in the country shouldn't take away from the "unprecedented progress" shown by willing brand signatories.
At around 9AM on 24 April 2013, more than 3,100 people - many of which women and children - were entombed in the collapsed walls of the Savar building in the northwest of Dhaka in Bangladesh.
A power outage had hit the Rana Plaza garment factory, leading to diesel generators on the top floor being fired up. This caused an unexpected structural failure and sudden collapse of the factory. In total, 1,138 people didn't make it out of the wreckage alive.
The dust was still settling on the Rana Plaza disaster when action was being taken. Merely three weeks had passed when a five-year, legally-binding agreement between global brands, retailers and trade unions was drawn up and signed in a concerted effort to create a safer and more secure garment industry. The swiftness of this response itself serves to highlight the severity of the situation.
The negligence surrounding the building's collapse, which saw 41 defendants face charges – including the building’s owner Sohel Rana – was compounded further by the Bangladeshi Government. During the rescue process, the United Nations (UN) offered the expert help of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), but the Government reportedly refused international help with the disaster.
This disregard towards worker safety forms the crux of the Bangladesh Accord, which has vowed to inspect, remedy and oversee safety inspections into more than 1,600 garment factories across the country.
But three years on from the Accord’s formation, stinging criticism of the poor working conditions in clothing supply chains still appear in the press.
Supply and demand
With just two years left for the Accord to run, its executive director Rob Wayss – who is speaking at edie’s Responsible Retail conference later this month (scroll down for details) – admits there is still a lot of work to be done.
“We’re certainly behind schedule and the remediation should’ve been completed in many factories more than a year ago,” Wayss says. “The pace is slower than it needs to be. Now, we have 22 factories out of 1,650 that have completed all the remediation from the initial inspections, and we have 165 that are 90% or more complete.
“About 67% of the original 80,000 findings from the inspections have been sorted, which is pretty good over the course of two years, but it’s still way behind schedule.”
For Wayss, who hopes to have 200 factories fully remediated by May 2017, the slow progress doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the amount of time and effort that both the Accord and its 220 signatories have put in to placate health and safety concerns across the factories.
The first batch of site inspections – which highlighted the aforementioned 80,000+ health and safety concerns – saw the Accord hire international industrial engineering firms to travel with Accord staff to 1,100 factories in Bangladesh. By early 2015, an extra 300 factories were listed by signatories for remediation.
This revolving door of the “inspect and remediate process” originally proved taxing for the Accord. But as brand and retail influence grew, so did the Accord’s capabilities and staff numbers.
Wayss revealed that the Accord’s Dhaka office, which directly liaises with its Amsterdam office, currently staffs 225 people, all but four of which are Bangladeshis. The Accord also enlists 100 engineers who are tasked with conversing with the factory managers to “monitor correct practices and implementations”.
For Wayss, the “unprecedented” growth of the Accord – both in staff numbers and its remediation process – has now bypassed the teething issues that had surfaced over the past two years to a point where acceleration can be achieved, as long as retailers act as the catalysts.
“There has been a legitimate issue that there’s a high demand for remediation services and for construction crews to carry out the installations,” he adds. “There’s a high demand with a limited supply for highly-skilled contractors.
“Some of the lack of progress is legitimate, but some of it is also disingenuous and the biggest reason, in our opinion, is that the factories have been slow and in some cases uncooperative and delayed the process. We’re finding that through the combination of providing an incredible amount of support from the Accord and monitoring the support from the brands we’ve increased the application of the escalation and warning processes and this is working.”
The Accord, which also boasts 30 case managers and a budget for an additional 10 trainers, has been breaking through these “disingenuous” roadblocks through factory visits, which take place a minimum of every 12 weeks.
Soothing the reluctance to improve safety standards isn’t merely causing slow progress within the country but is actually creating a platform where the Accord is improving the long-term prospects for safety in the country, Wayss says. By developing a band of Bangladeshi engineers that can address health and safety issues beyond the Accord’s 2018 timeframe, Wayss believes that the Accord will leave a legacy in the form of engineers who can serve the Bangladeshi Government better than the current “sub-standard” working pool.
The new generation of Bangladeshi engineers will also have the blueprints in place to remedy the multitude of health and safety issues found in the country’s factories - Wayss claims that around two-thirds of the 80,000 issues have already been addressed.
Common among the safety issues identified through the Accord was the use of lockable gates, effectively trapping workers inside buildings. Along with removing these, the Accord has also had to fit a variety of fire alarms and sprinklers, while also improving the safety of circuit boxes. On the structural aspect of the buildings, the Accord has worked to remove “overloading” issues which place heavy products, machinery and large volumes of fabric on the top levels of the building.
Primark of honour
But while identifying the issues has become commonplace, Wayss revealed that the uptake in the remediation process only started to accelerate once the brands and retailers themselves began taking responsibility for their own supply chains and the factories that these issues were found in.
As the Accord was inspecting the first 1,100 factories, brands such as Primark, Premier Clothing and Loblaw were all contributing to a $40m pot thought to be needed to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. While a select few companies have failed to push support to the Accord beyond this point, Wayss feels that the criticism that aimed at companies like Primark has been somewhat unjust, noting that certain brands have moved beyond financing the Accord to hiring dedicated staff to exclusively communicate and remediate with the factories.
“The factories are required to fix everything from the safety findings and the brands are required to make sure that that happens and finance the changes if needed,” Wayss says. “Many of the brands have since hired additional staff within their own company to monitor progress.
“Primark has invested a lot into the Accord. They’ve been very active from the start to work on post-inspection remediation, following through and contacting factories. Several of the larger brands have done similar. These companies have bigger operations in [Bangladesh] and they have the opportunity to hire staff both globally and regionally. These are the ones who are better suited to monitor progress and to enforce the commitments they’ve made with their suppliers.
“Everyone recognised the pace was too slow, and companies like Primark assumed greater responsibility for all their factories. A lot of brands have stepped up and accelerated progress, even in the factories where they weren’t the lead brand.”
For Primark in particular – which is also a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) – a move to improve communication with key supply chains in main sourcing countries such as India, China and Bangladesh will see its ethical trading department grow from a team of 64 to 80 by the end of the year.
The growth in this team – which is being overseen by Primark’s head of ethical trading Paul Lister – is to ensure that the company can go beyond the remediation process and actually begin to educate workers on their rights, and factory managers on current safety issues.
“Sometimes remediation is about education,” Lister recently told edie. “You can tell someone they’ve got it wrong but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll know how to get it right. It's about education before, during and after and it gives you a much better and sustainable remediation process.
“The key component for us is putting the issues right and we are rigorous in what we are looking for, and if we can’t find these then I feel like we would have failed the workforce. People are afraid of turning over stones, but if the industry stops seeing ethics as a competitive element and starts collaborating across the industry, everyone will make quicker progress.”
With the Accord only running until 2018, it seems that collaboration will be key to ensuring that the foundation it has put in-place isn’t itself reduced rubble amidst another catastrophe.
Wayss isn’t confident that the national actors in Bangladesh will have progressed to a satisfactory level where they can enforce labour standards without the Accord’s influence. Fortunately, though, several of the Accord's signatory companies are in discussions with the UN's International Labour Organisation to map-out exactly what will happen post-2018.
“It’s widely recognised by the signatories that the national actors in Bangladesh will not have progressed an adequate amount for us to have confidence that safety compliance is being carried out and monitored,” Wayss explains. “I don’t think there’s any of the signatories that believe that by 2018 the Government will have the skills and the will to implement a regulatory mandate.
“I don’t think the industry or the factory owners are going to voluntarily respect safety measures and I don’t think anyone believes that the trade unions in the industry are going to be adequately capable to enforce and watchdog that safety compliance and laws are being adhered to.
“One way or the other, the brands and retailers are going to have to continue in some shape or form to do their own monitoring and support. Whether this results in a new Accord or an extension to this one I don’t know, but there are conversations going on between the signatories on what happens next.”
Even though green groups and campaigners have watched – and at times criticised – progress in Bangladesh, for everyday consumers, the ramifications of a collapsed factory on the other side of the world is arguably unlikely to ignite a major change in shopping habits or preferences - particularly in the sphere of fast fashion. In this world where price and performance still dominate consumer buying decisions, Wayss believes it is the duty of the Accord and its signatories to relay the progress in Bangladesh to a global audience.
The Accord prides itself on its transparency.Wayss claims that the amount of information it makes available to the public is “unmatched” - every audit, inspection, issue and remediation meeting is documented and digested into readable and publicly-downloadable reports. Only by getting consumers to interact with this data that the efforts being made in Bangladesh can begin to resonate with the public -even if it means disrupting a price-driven narrative, Wayss says.
“In regards to consumer awareness, it needs to manifest itself with consumers accepting that it costs money to maintain and build safe factories and provide good working conditions. The consumers are part of the solution.
“If they want garments produced in safe conditions, then they have to reconsider what you pay for an item of clothing and be willing to pay a little bit more to make the global supply chain one where safety can be better assured.
“The Accord is unmatched in the amount of information that is available to the public, consumers and to the media. The disclosure and public transparency is unprecedented and it shows the commitment that the signatories are making in moving the garment industry ahead to where it’s safer. Global companies are taking a big piece of this responsibility in holding the factories to account.”
Rob Wayss at edie's Responsible Retail Conference
The Bangladesh Accord’s executive director Rob Wayss is one of the expert speakers at edie's upcoming Responsible Retail Conference.
Taking place on 21 September in London, the edie Responsible Retail Conference equips retailers, government representatives, sustainability professionals and key stakeholders with the tools they need to achieve more efficient resource use and improve brand reputation in the process.