Will horror and over a thousand dead be a watershed moment for Bangladesh?

May 17, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

A huge and chaotic conversation over how to respond to the appalling Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh (where the death toll has noweti_logo passed an unprecedented 1100) is producing some important initial results, in the form of the international ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’, launched this week.

I got a glimpse of the background on Wednesday at a meeting of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which brings together big brand retailers, including garment companies, trades unions and INGOs like Oxfam to work on wages and conditions in company supply chains. The Accord got some pretty rave reviews – ‘absolutely historic’, said Ben Moxham of the UK Trades Union Congress; comparable to the 1911 Chicago factory fire, according to one of the big clothes retailers at the meeting.

So what does it say? The Accord covers independent safety inspections, publicly reported; mandatory repairs and renovations; a vital role for workers and trade unions, including a commitment to Bangladesh’s Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety (a national initiative). A key, and controversial aspect is that the Accord will include a legally binding arbitration mechanism, which wins a lot of trust from civil society and trade unions, but has spooked a number of companies based in the litigation-tastic USA (not all though –  part of Tommy Hilfiger’s in there, while Abercrombie and Fitch have said it they will join).

30 companies  signed up ahead of Wednesday’s midnight deadline, including Primark, (who were buying clothes from Rana Plaza), Tesco, Sainsburys, M&S, Inditex (eg Zara), NEXT, C&A, Carrefour and PVH (part of Tommy Hilfiger). There are some holdouts – Walmart is insisting on going it alone and doing its own factory inspections, which is disappointing, not least because it is focussing on the short term problem and missing the need for longer-term coordinated political engagement. And of course, nothing legally binding there.

Given my current work focus, I fell to musing on the theory of change that underlay this apparent breakthrough. Obviously, the immediate driver is a particularly grisly ‘shock as opportunity’. But other factors worth noticing include:

  1. The ETI’s prior existence of a forum that established a high degree of trust between traditional antagonists (companies, unions and NGOs). This allowed people to get on the phone to each other and get things moving, without  first having to overcome barriers of distrust.
  2. Prior work on some kind of accord had been going on since 2011, but had got nowhere due to lack of urgency and trust – the Rana Plaza disaster massively escalated the pressure to act.
  3. A nascent national process (the National Action Plan for Fire Safety), that gave outsiders something to support and build on.
  4. Energetic leadership from two new international trade unions, IndustriAll and UNI Global Union, helped get the right people in the room.
  5. The organizers set a rather arbitrary, but very effective 15 May deadlineto prevent the response getting kicked into the long grass. A number of companies are feeling bruised by the pressure for immediate action, so there will be some fences to mend there once the Accord is up and running.

rana plaza 2An interesting underlying challenge, reflecting my ramblings last week on change, complexity and national ownership, is how to combine the catalytic effect of a massive shock, with the need for slow, painstaking construction of new/improved institutions from within Bangladesh – the only way to ensure that whatever emerges is not just another bit of corporate spin. Peter McAllister, ETI’s Executive Director, reckons that the circle can be squared if the shock is primarily used to get all the international actors lined up behind the Accord, but that the implementation process needs to be slower and nationally owned.

Next steps? The Accord lays out a 45 day period to come up with an implementation plan, involving a crucial shift from being internationally to locally driven.

The TUC’s Ben Moxham hopes the accord, and the ensuing government agreement to relax restrictions on trade unions, will help consolidate and strengthen Bangladesh’s chaotic garment workers unions (39 separate unions by his count).

Others at the meeting hope that the Accord could act as a model for both other garment exporters (Bangladesh is world number 2, after China), or for other sectors within Bangladesh – collapsing buildings are not confined to garment factories.

One last thought – in this conversation between companies, unions, NGOs and the ILO, where is the UK Government? So far pretty quiet, but you’d think that coming in behind a business-led response like this with some matching funding would be a pretty attractive ‘announceable’ for a Conservative Party minister, not least because the Accord could head off other short-term, and ultimately damaging exits like Disney, where companies stop buying from Bangladesh to protect their brand, but leave thousands of women without jobs. How about some constructive engagement, DFID?

May 17, 2013
Duncan Green