With Black Friday and Cyber Monday behind us, and the holiday shopping season in full swing, spare a moment as you browse for purchases to consider the situation in Bangladesh. As you may know, or will discover if you check the tags on your clothing, much of the apparel sold in the United States is made in Bangladesh; fast fashion brands are particularly fond of sourcing from the country, as it’s incredibly cheap to produce there, and fully 82 percent of the Bangladeshi economy is dedicated to garment production (and affiliated labor.) As you may also know, conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh more or less suck, and now there’s a good chance conditions are about to get a lot more suck-y.
This week, the High Court of Bangladesh will decide whether or not to close down the Dhaka office of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and evict its inspectors. The Accord came into being after the 2012 collapse of Rana Plaza, a disaster that killed over a thousand workers employed at the several small garment factories housed there, and injured double that; it’s a legally-binding agreement among brands, retailers, and trade unions designed to build a safe Bangladeshi garment industry. Over the past five years, the Accord has been instrumental in forcing improvements in the factories that supply its signatory companies, which include H&M, Arcadia Group (owner of Topshop), and Inditex (owner of Zara.) The Accord isn’t perfect—it doesn’t cover all the factories in Bangladesh, for starters, and there remain gaping loopholes for Western brands, who can claim ignorance when their factories-of-record subcontract orders to firms that operate in the shadows. Nevertheless, The Accord has been effective, enough so that the agreement was renewed, this year, for another five-year term.
As Ineke Zeldenrust, International Director of the Clean Clothes Campaign, explains, factory owners in Bangladesh began advocating for government takeover of the compliance process earlier this year, as the initial term of The Accord was set to expire. Coincidentally, or not, that pushback followed a fierce government crackdown on garment worker activism—a crackdown that continued as, this fall, the government, workers, and factory owners renegotiated the country’s paltry minimum wage. “What the factory owners and the government are saying is, we’re a sovereign nation, and we can and should do this ourselves,” says Zeldenrust. “Bangladesh does have its own inspection regime, but no one outside the government believes it’s ready to take over The Accord’s work. Even if they have the will to do it, they just don’t have the capacity.”