The Accord on Fire and Building Safety – popularly known as the Accord – passed on the responsibility to ensure safe workplaces for Ready-made Garment (RMG) workers to a newly formed RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) on 31 May. The Accord left after operating for seven years in Bangladesh.

By Mohammad Tareq Hasan (University of Dhaka, Bangladesh)

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety – popularly known as the Accord – passed on the responsibility to ensure safe workplaces for Ready-made Garment (RMG) workers to a newly formed RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) on 31 May. The Accord left after operating for seven years in Bangladesh.

Looking back, nearly 200 apparel brands based in Europe formed the Accord and 28 North American apparel brands formed Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – after the collapse of Rana Plaza that killed more than 1100 workers and injured more than 2000. These global regulatory bodies aimed to improve workplace safety in garment factories. Together, these platforms inspected more than 1,600 factories and claim to have completed over 90% of remediation works in the manufacturing factories. Alliance ceased operation on 31 December 2018, however, the RSC has inherited Accord.

RSC is unprecedented in its form. Three main stakeholders of the industry, namely, RMG manufacturers, global retail brands, and Bangladeshi affiliates of global unions will steer the council. They expect to carry forward the “significant accomplishments” of workplace safety, as the maiden press release of RSC has claimed. It will continue factories inspections, monitor progress in remediation, ensure safety training, and install an independent safety and health complaints mechanism for RMG workers.

President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) subsequently claimed, RSC would make sure that Bangladeshi garment factories become one of the safest RMG products manufacturing countries. Despite many criticisms about the remediation plans of Alliance and Accord, it is true that infrastructural improvements were exceptional. However, these remediation plans and activities of “newly” formed regulatory bodies divert our attention from other fundamental issues that need critical attention.

Open factories during lockdown

For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic, workers’ welfare has been jeopardized. Despite the threats of Coronavirus, many factories reopened while the country was still under lockdown. Thousands of workers returned to Dhaka on their bare foot under threats of dismissal and loss of due wages. The rush for keeping the market share of apparel products, such as Personal Protective Equipment led to the workers’ treatment as “disposable bodies”. Here we found an extraordinary similarity with the infamous Rana Plaza calamity. Back in 2013, many factory managers forced workers to continue production in an unsafe building under threats of sacking and withholding salary.

To get a fuller picture of the current predicaments of the RMG industry, on the one hand, we must seek a proper understanding of the new supervisory activities that “regulatory bodies” had put in place since 2013. On the other hand, we must become aware of the fact that only burdening the factories with “responsibilities” will not ensure justice for the workers.

Since 2013, audit inspection has emerged as a way to structure working conditions in factory, and ensure accountability and transparency. The emphasis on auditing and compliance turned auditing into a business subsequently. The globally well-known social compliance initiatives are Social Accountability International, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, Fair Labour Association, Business Social Compliance Initiative, etc. While the largest corporate-controlled auditing firms include Bureau Veritas, TUV Rheinland, UL, RINA, ELEVATE, etc. Usually, these companies provide certification of international standards such as Social Audit (SA8000) – to assess the social practices in a workplace and Factory Audit (ISO9000) – to assess capacity and capability of a factory.

Global corporate policies for mandatory adherence to specific labouring practices emerged in the 1970s following anti-sweatshop campaigns against child labour and exploitative working conditions. Emphasis on factory compliance and monitoring procedures gained momentum in the ‘90s and 2000s.

More pressure due to compliance practices

Since 2013 in Bangladesh, most of the emphasis had been on improving physical infrastructures to ensure clean, well-lit, well-aired, and safe factories. Factory compliance requirements also necessitated a particular work regime, e.g. 8-hour working day and limited overtime. However, there had been scarce focus on the influences of the new work regimes on the workers’ lives.

During my research, many RMG workers stated that some of the compliance practices became reasons of their exploitation and disempowerment. The 8-hour working day with maximum two hours of overtime ironically intensified pressure on the workers to increase their production rate. Often times supervisors became stricter and workers got fewer breaks during the workday. Many workers mentioned, they drink “minimum” water to reduce “toilet breaks”, which would lose some production time and might lead to unpaid overtime.

Largely, factory owners could force a tight production schedule because poor labourers have hardly any alternative employment opportunities. Ironically, the fear of losing work order that these new compliance requirements for improving labour conditions has set forth in turn has diluted the class positions of the workers against the factory management. In other words, factory regulations “de-classed” the working class. Workers and factory management all concentrate on achieving the work order through passing the audits and receiving the required certifications. Once “de-classed”, workers lose bargaining power both institutionally and psychologically in the struggle against exploitations.

Even if all factories achieve required certifications, existing salary structure needs a revision. After repeated protests, minimum wage for garment workers has been set at USD 94, which is insufficient if we consider it in comparison with the present-day poverty line income, or the cost of basic needs. According to the latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016, per month, a household requires at least USD 181 for basic consumption expenditure. Undoubtedly, garment workers find it hard to survive with the salary they generally receive.

The major loophole in understanding of the global commodity supply chain is our obsession with factories and its working conditions. We forget to analyse the impact of the business practices of global brands and our own consumption practices.

In an open market economic system, the production bases earn an extremely low rate of profit while the capital owners take the maximum surplus value. Despite the current emphasis on factory compliance issues, Oxfam has revealed the wage of workers account for 4% of the retail price. Their estimates of 2017 indicate, the global supply chain can ensure a living wage for garment workers by reallocating 17 cents per product. Perplexingly, global brands keep faltering from their commitments and responsibility. For instance, H&M had declared in 2013, it would guarantee “fair living wage” for workers of 750 supplier factories by 2018. However, it has moved away from its supposed “shared responsibility” in 2017 by revising the goal to have an “improved wage management system”.

Because the retailers evade their responsibility, the manufactures remain locked in a vicious repeating cycle of intensifying exploitation. Western retailers emphasized on factory remediation but their search for profit continued on, ultimately pushing the workers more into exploitation. Pennsylvania State University, in their 2018 study of Bangladeshi garment industry found – a 13% decline in the unit price at the manufacturing end since 2013. Moreover, lead time for production decreased by 8% between 2011 and 2015.

The existing business practices guided by low price and quick shipment lead to extensive working hours of 12 to 16 hours a day or more to meet production deadlines. Any missed deadline generally renders uncertainty over workers’ unpaid and future salary.

The situation of garment industries during the pandemic further exposes inequalities at different layers of the world economic order – an ardent feature of economic flexibilization under globalization. For example, recently, British retailer Debenhams has gone under administration and plunged its overseas employees and suppliers into crisis.

Debenhams terminated all of its employees in its Bangladesh office following the British regulations. However, it overruled the local directives of the Bangladesh government demanding no laying-off or furlough of workers during the pandemic. Moreover, at the manufacturing end, Debenhams has USD 69 million in liabilities. The bankruptcy will make provision for Debenhams to be rebranded and continuing business perhaps under a different name but the suppliers incurring losses will hardly receive any compensation.

This illustrates power inequality between the western retailers and manufacturers based mostly in the developing world. International buyers impose codes of conducts upon their manufacturers in poorer countries. On the contrary, manufactures cannot require their western buyers to comply with a given code of conduct, e.g. specific purchasing practices.

The condition of the RMG sector proves that legal bindings and regulatory bodies poignantly produce explanations and assumes remedies that are antagonistic to the processes of overcoming existing exploitations – as David Graeber, in the book Utopia of Rules has argued.

On a positive note, very recently, at least BGMEA has announced it will blacklist Western apparel brands that “exploit” manufacturing factories. This “threat” came after a major brand’s failure to pay due invoices since the start of the Coronavirus crisis. BGMEA even threatened to sue Edinburgh Woolen Mills (EWM) Limited – a high street UK fashion brand over the unpaid dues. Different reports stated EWM and its subsidiary companies owe around USD 30 million to a number of Bangladeshi manufacturers. Besides, global brands including EWM have cancelled or put on hold more than USD 3 billion worth of work orders since the start of the pandemic.

During the past months, many western retailers failed to pay their dues. Nonetheless, EWM responded characterizing BGMEA’s action as “unproductive and uncollaborative”. It indicates that generally individual factory management remain not in a position to negotiate because of the fear of losing contracts to other garment factories or to other countries. Maybe, now it is time to try out forming a regulatory body of global manufacturers that would rather regulate retail fashion brands.

The power of consumers

Besides forming new regulations, consumers can play a significant role as businesses thrive on compounding “sales”. Whenever we visit any retail store, we always find a section of products on “sale” as well as a section of “new arrivals”, which means that fashion changes fast. Retailers offer ever lower prices to keep the “market share” higher than the competing brands. We as consumers must be aware of the consequences of this low cost “Fast Fashion” on the RMG workers and the environment.

If we i.e. the consumers become conscious about our actions and “buy” the minimum, it will eventually force manufacturers and retailers to retreat from the frenzy of production and current exploitative practices. One popular argument in favour of fast fashion is that more production means more employment. Nevertheless, a destructive system like this needs a radical change and we can be the initiators towards positivity.

This is important because regulatory bodies like the RSC will never address workers’ fundamental problems. Rather, the requirements of workers’ safety and factory compliance will mark Bangladeshi factories as “unproductive” – if compared with competing production locations. The “mad” search for profit directs the clothing brands from one country to another and fierce competitions between factories ensue a race to the bottom.

Africa instead of Bangladesh?

An op-ed by Garrett Brown in 2018 argued, Africa offers many competitive advantages with much lower minimum wage as there is near-zero mandatory compliance regulations to follow. Therefore, as in the early 1980s global retailers chose Bangladesh as a production base, at present East Africa has appeared as the “new promised land” for garment production.

Western retailers – forming “new” regulatory bodies impose ethical codes to influence the social and environmental conditions of employment in their manufacturing networks – but their search of profit eventually disperse production into parts of the world where working conditions can remain “exploitative”. David Harvey has termed this process as “capitalistic imperialism”.

Global economic order relocates production centres to the countries with “industrial reserve army”. This creates inequality amid exceptional economic growth. Hence, we must move ahead from our obsession with declaring minimum wages to fixing minimum price of products as well as to altering consumption practices.

Once we direct our attention to the apparel brands’ role in the exploitation of RMG workers, we get insights into the paradoxes of regulatory bodies and the best ways to address the needs of the workers. Unless we address problems centring global commodities comprehensively, regulatory bodies like Accord, Alliance or RSC will only ethicize and validate existing exploitative practices.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.