In Spring 2013, in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, dozens of international companies met with the global union federations IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union as well as with the ILO at the Headquarters of the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.
The practitioners amongst us, including me, were sensing that this gathering could be a turning point for the industry. For the first time in the history of the industry, global companies and unions, supported by the ILO, had come together to create joint change on the ground, in a legally binding and transparent manner.
Philip van Heusen (PvH) and Tchibo had designed the basic architecture of the Accord jointly with Global Union INDUSTRIALL (previously the ITGWLF) and the Clean Clothes Campaign about a year prior to Rana Plaza. Our due diligence analyses had shown that we were unable to vouch for fire and building safety in the factories we were sourcing from in Bangladesh as individual companies. There had to be a joint, systemic approach to uplevel the industry, amongst others by creating accountability, transparency of implementation and – most importantly – empowering workers and their legitimate representatives to raise their voices, especially in unsafe situations.
Unfortunately, it took Rana Plaza to lift the Accord off from the ground. But with its entering into force, Bangladesh factories became safer. Today, the initial remediation rate lies at 93%.
An important piece in the picture is self-sustainability. Bangladesh’s wish to take ownership over the process is not only commendable, but the right step forward. The question was, however: what role should and would international companies play in this mix, and how should the relationship be designed with the unions?
As a company with 15 years of on-the-ground experience, our stance is clear: structures and processes have to be in place that enable workers to negotiate on an eye-to-eye level with employers, or more basic to be able to speak up and protect themselves in situations of danger. As a reminder: at Rana Plaza, workers had identified cracks in the building, but were forced to continue to work and did so, out of fear of losing their job.
Despite growing progress, the power distribution in Bangladesh and other production countries tends to be negatively biased towards workers’ rights. There have been reoccurring incidents of persecution of union members and civil society activists.
Against this backdrop, an agreement that holds international companies accountable to progress, not as good will, but as obligation, also creates an environment that strengthens workers’ rights.
We are tremendously happy with the outcome that was negotiated, and we want to thank those in the negotiation team that fought for a positive, proactive stance towards worker rights.
The new Agreement continues to be legally binding in the spirit of the previous Accord. It integrates worker voices. It ensures long-term sustainability of the efforts at a local level. And, it is the basis for expanding the joint great work to other countries.
We hope this momentum will allow us to take further steps that are binding and focus on joint action on the ground. Living wages need to be achieved. The climate needs protection, as well as the biodiversity of this planet. Together we can create change.
The past 10 years of the Bangladesh Accord prove this point and we trust that the new structure in Bangladesh will continue the good work.
Needless to say, that we as a company have signed the new Agreement.