Bangladesh factories face inspections after safety deal

(File photo) A Bangladeshi woman works in a garments factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Story highlights

  • Bangladeshi garment factories will be inspected under a new safety accord
  • Retailers, fashion brands signed it along with labour unions and non-governmental organisations
  • The arrangement was spurred by the death of 1,129 people in factory collapse in April

Bangladeshi factories making clothes for 70 mostly European multinationals will be inspected over the next nine months under a new safety accord that lets labour activists hold companies accountable for not enforcing standards.

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The details of the legally-binding accord -- joined by its first signatories in May -- were announced early on Monday in Europe. Big retailers and fashion brands have signed it along with labour unions and non-governmental organisations.

The five-year arrangement was spurred by the death of 1,129 people when a Bangladeshi garment factory collapsed in April, which was the industry's worst accident in history. Among the first to join it were Hennes & Mauritz and Tesco.

The disaster has created a rift among multinationals as European groups pursue the legally-binding accord while most of their US counterparts -- including Walmart, Gap and JC Penney -- are backing an alternative, non-binding deal, the details of which will be unveiled later in July.

Under the Europe-led deal, the first nine months of factory inspections will "identify grave hazards and the need for urgent repairs".

The owners of unsafe factories will be told to cease operations, repair plans will be drawn up, and workers will be informed of their right to refuse to enter while still receiving pay for up to six months while the factory remains closed.

If a company is alleged to be violating its commitments under the accord, then other signatories can file a complaint. It would first go to a steering committee, then an arbitration process that will be enforceable in a court of law in the company's home country. The deal does not contain any penalty provisions.

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The deal's other signatories include Marks and Spencer, Benetton, Carrefour, Metro and Inditex, which owns Zara, as well as Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH of the US. The number of signatories has risen to 70 from 30 in mid-May.

Jyrki Raina, general secretary of Industriall, a labour group that played a central role in creating the accord, said the deaths of 1,800 Bangladeshi garment workers in factory accidents over the past seven years had proved that voluntary safety initiatives were insufficient.

"This historic, legally binding accord will effect tangible change on the ground and help make the Bangladeshi garment industry safe and sustainable," he said.

Read more: Inside a Bangladesh garment factory that plays by the rules

The deal's other labour signatory is the UNI union. The non-governmental organisations involved include the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Worker's Rights Consortium.

The new regime will not begin functioning immediately. The signatories have posted a job advertisement for its chief safety inspector, with an application deadline of July 30.

In June, the Obama administration suspended trade privileges for Bangladesh, citing its poor labour standards, although the move was largely symbolic as the privileges had not covered garments.