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21 October 2015

Rana Plaza: safety undermined by lack of workplace democracy

Rana Plaza and its 1 100 plus victims, mainly women, are still in everyone’s minds. The horror generated by the tragedy has forced the garment industry giants to make commitments to safety in the textile factories of Bangladesh. The results of research into their impact were revealed for the first time on 15 October during an ETUI Monthly Forum.

Following the disaster, two international initiatives were launched to improve safety in the textile sector: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, signed by around 180 multinationals including H&M, C&A and Inditex/Zara, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Jimmy Donaghey and Juliane Reinecke from the University of Warwick (UK) went to Bangladesh to carry out research comparing the impact of these two initiatives.

Jimmy Donaghey firstly criticises a fundamental difference in their nature: whereas the Accord has taken an ‘industrial relations’ type approach, in which the trade unions have their say, the Alliance is a much looser tool inspired by the ‘corporate social responsibility’ approach, which basically relies on the goodwill of signatories, without workers or their independent representative organisations being consulted. Moreover, the Alliance was set up by two US businesses, GAP and Walmart, which refused to join with the other multinational signatories in the Accord.

Although, in their implementation, the inspections conducted in textile factories based on the two types of commitment are very similar (comparable reporting system and standards), worker involvement represents a very clear demarcation line between the two initiatives: whereas the Accord commits its signatories to setting up a health and safety committee, the Alliance mainly offers worker consultation tools that focus on the individual worker: call centre, hotline, etc.

Ben Vanpeperstraete, who represents the international trade union federations Uni Global Union and IndustriAll Global Union within the Accord’s implementing bodies, emphasises that there are significant differences in terms of transparency: ‘whereas the Accord publishes its reports on its website, the Alliance refuses to do so’.

Aside from the differences in approach between the two initiatives, the trade union representative and the researcher agree on the most important obstacles to be overcome in order to improve safety in the Bangladeshi textile industry: failures to implement and observe legislation and a total lack of any culture of democracy in the business world.

‘The labour legislation in Bangladesh is better than that in the United Kingdom, but it has never been implemented’, observes Mr Donaghey. Ben Vanpeperstraete criticises the failings of the labour inspectorate in terms of both independence and skills. Both also stress the close links between textile manufacturers and the political world.

Esther Lynch, who was recently elected Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation and who is responsible for occupational health and safety issues, has highlighted similarities between the working conditions of female workers in the textile industry in Bangladesh and labourers, often immigrants, in certain sectors in the United Kingdom, particularly the meat industry.

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