The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh expires today, but only two clothing retailers have so far agreed to renew their contract.
Accord website says over 190 brands had committed to be signatories to the agreement, which was formulated just weeks after the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013.
The agreement acts as a binding safety programme, where signatories can only source from the Accord-certified factories. Failing to do so could subject them to litigation.
Some of the signatories were the biggest retailers like Primark, Tesco, H&M, American Eagle Outfitters, Marks & Spencer, Inditex, Benetton, Adidas, and Loblaw.
But only the British brand ASOS Ltd and the German brand Tchibo have agreed to renew the contract. The current contract, known as the Transition Accord, was signed in May 2018.
For the past few weeks, global unions like IndustriALL have been stating that without the Accord, nothing can legally stop brands from buying from suppliers who are not compliant.
One of the Accord's main jobs was to inspect factories and make them structurally safe and compliant as per international standards.
According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Accord has been working with over 1,600 factories, but the database shows that not all have completed the steps needed to make them a hundred percent compliant.
For example, as many as 130 factories working with Accord are yet to achieve even 50 percent of the remediation recommended to make them safe and compliant.
A total of 580 of Accord's factories have completed over 90 percent of the remediation.
On June 1, 2020, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) took over the Accord in Bangladesh with the mandate to continue with factory inspections, remediation monitoring, and workplace programmes.
"RSC is the successor of Accord in Bangladesh, and they can hold factories accountable. But with the RSC, there is no legal obligation for brands. Accord is legally binding, so the brands can be taken to court. No matter what we do locally, the brands need to be held accountable. Factories are safe only when brands can be held accountable," said Kalpona Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation and founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity.
Meanwhile, sources at the bodies related to the Accord said that they were being obliged to extend the contract by a further three months to give more time for the retailers to join.
On April 24, Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) said at a press briefing, "Negotiations are happening late because the brands requested so because of the pandemic and the unions agreed to it. We have been contacting brands to know about their position on key features."
Several brands issued statements stating their wish to opt for the RSC in the future.
Swedish retailer H&M issued a statement saying, "When the transition Accord was signed in 2018, it was agreed by signatory brands and trade unions that after the agreement ends in May 31, 2021, work will be handed over to a national regulatory body who would take over the work thereafter [i.e. RSC].
"This RSC adopted all Accord standards, compliance, protocols and articles. We are committed to supporting the RSC, to continue driving improvements in safety standards in the entire textile industry in Bangladesh, not only the factories producing for H&M Group."
Prominent global brand C&A said, "In January 2020, the Accord Steering Committee signed an agreement with the Bangladesh Garment Employers' Association [BGMEA] on the transition to RSC. The Transition Agreement outlines the principles and steps in the transition from the Accord to the RSC, which aims to bring together industry, brands, and trade unions to carry forward the significant workplace safety accomplishments made in Bangladesh."
It also said, "We still believe that if we want to be effective, we need to incorporate the Accord success story and learning into the RSC and we believe an agreement to do so is still possible and highly desirable."
In addition, another Swedish retail group Lindex said, "In May 2020, the Bangladesh Supreme Court ruled that the foreign structure of the Accord could not be operationally maintained in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Supreme Court effectively banned The Bangladesh Accord from working in Bangladesh."
"Therefore, a new structure was needed and the Accord operations in Bangladesh were transferred, with the support of the ILO, to the newly founded RSC. The Accord protocols, standards and resources have effectively transitioned into the RSC in 2020. We are committed to securing the independence, resources and financing of this organisation to secure workplace safety for all workers in Bangladesh now and into the future," said the group.
Meanwhile, a recent report published by CCC, Worker Rights Consortium, Maquila Solidarity Network and Global Labor Justice found that 12 leading brands who are currently signatories to the Accord are still sourcing from factories which have not finished remediation.
The report, titled "Unfinished Businesses: Outstanding safety hazards at garment factories show that the Accord must be extended and expanded". It named the 12 brands: Aldi Nord, Aldi Süd, Bestseller, C&A, H&M, Lidl, Lindex, Loblaw, PVH, Varner Group, WE Fashion and Zeeman.
"Every brand included in this report is fully aware of the safety deficiencies at its factories in Bangladesh and receives regular reports on these from the Accord," said the report.
H&M for example was named for sourcing from 118 factories without safe exits, 159 factories without fire alarms and 163 factories without fire suppression systems.
In response, the brand said, "The numbers referred to in the report "Unfinished business" do not mean that factories lack these safety mechanisms. It can refer to the fact that these mechanisms are in need of maintenance or do not have adequate size according to international safety standards. Some of the issues stated in the report have already been corrected, but due to lockdowns and fewer factory visits because of Covid-19, the Accord has not been able to verify these corrections."
Bestseller was named in the report for sourcing from 70 factories without safe exits, and 90 factories without fire alarms.
In response, the brand stated, "Covid-19 has made it challenging for RSC personnel to officially verify improvements, as on-site visits have been suspended. Therefore much progress has not been officially recorded, and is therefore not reflected in these figures."
The Daily Star tried to contact BGMEA president Faruque Hassan yesterday for comments on the issue, but he did not respond to calls and text messages.
In a letter issued on April 29, he had said, "The BGMEA has the greatest respect for the global trade unions and their affiliates. At the same time we, from the industry side, strongly stand by the principles on which the RSC was founded.
"It is a national initiative with global standards. It is not going to be commanded by any external authority. The Accord expired in 2018 and there has been no accepted extension. We do not recognise the transition Accord and neither does the Government of Bangladesh, which will expire on 31 May, 2021. Any other extension or new Accord will similarly not be recognised and will not be a part of any initiative related to the safety Bangladesh is looking forward to. We like to point out that no organisation or authorities like Accord exist anywhere in the world where garments are manufactured."