One of the major achievements of the labor movement in the aftermath of last April’s Rana Plaza factory tragedy is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The agreement, which was negotiated by worker advocates and brands last year and is now in its first stages of implementation, is ostensibly a landmark set of health and safety regulations for the country’s burgeoning garment industry. But it is also a political document, and a response to a horrific history of industrial accidents in the Global South. Even more, it symbolizes the tension between the politics of enforcement, and the imperative of public health, where workers now have an opening to win more control over their workplaces.
That said, the very fact that the framework is so basic—make sure that they are working in a safe building and don’t have to worry about risking their lives each workday—shows what a hard climb it will be before Bangladesh workers are able to fully assert their rights at work. Moreover, the agreement addresses structural and fire safety issues, but does not directly deal with other common health hazards in factories like chemical exposures, mechanical accidents, and repetitive stress injuries. There are also long-term health issues associated with poverty and sheer physical exhaustion that come with the long hours and backbreaking drudgery of garment production. Other workplace risks overlap with structural social problems, like crowded conditions, the presence of child labor and sexual or physical abuse at the hands of bosses.
And then there is the key question of who will be doing the enforcement. Conventional third-party factory auditing programs used by multinationals like WalMart have historically served as effectively a corporate rubber stamp. Moreover, corruption is endemic in Bangladesh’s garment sector, with close collusion between top industrialists and the political class.
But the Accord does include clear provisions requiring qualified professionals “with fire and building safety expertise and impeccable credentials, and who [are] independent of and not concurrently employed by companies, trade unions or factories.” And the hiring for and administration of the program will be overseen by a Steering Committee with representation from both the signatory companies and labor groups. So the agreement seems in theory to include some internal checks against corruption.
In addition to worker empowerment, developing an indigenous regulatory labor force is also critical. Garrett Brown, a California-based occupational health specialist, recently visited Bangladesh with a group of independent occupational health and safety professionals to assist with the Accord’s implementation, and he comments about the challenges ahead via email: