DHAKA, Bangladesh — The end of an international arrangement aimed at ensuring the wellbeing of Bangladeshi garment workers is likely to undermine safety by making factory owners responsible for maintaining standards, trade union leaders said on Tuesday.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was set up by European fashion brands to improve factory safety in Bangladesh after a garment factory complex collapsed in 2013 killing more than 1,100 people.
Staff inspect factories to check on safety in the world's second largest exporter of readymade garments.
The five-year pact was originally due to expire in May 2018 but a longer transition period was agreed. Attempts by the Accord's members to extend its authority to operate were challenged in court by some factory owners, while the government set up its own body to take over its work.
On Sunday, a court approved a plan to transfer the factory oversight team that works under the pact, which is known as the Accord, and its duties to a group led by the top garment manufacturer's association.
This was framed without any discussion with labour unions.
But leaders of seven garment workers' unions say they were not consulted on the arrangement, which they said could give too much power to the factory owners, who union leaders fear lack the incentive to invest in safety.
"This deal is sure to compromise the safety and security of garment workers given there will be no independent decision-making by the Accord," said Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.
"This was framed without any discussion with labour unions."
Unions will decide this week on what action they might take to protest against the arrangement, Akter said.
Low wages have helped Bangladesh build the world’s second-largest garment industry, behind China, with some 4,000 factories employing about 4 million workers.
Bangladesh is among the world's largest exporters of apparel sold by Western companies like H&M, Adidas and Walmart, but the industry has been plagued by fires and boiler explosions that have killed hundreds in recent years.
Any new worry over safety standards could prompt some brands to cut ties with Bangladeshi suppliers.
The Accord was formed by European fashion brands along with a global union federation — IndustriALL.
It can sanction a company if it fails safety checks by imposing export restrictions.
Akter said the end of the independently operating Accord would be a major drawback.
There will be no lapses... this is a question of existence.
Government officials say the Accord is no longer needed as a national regulatory body, the Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC), is able to do the job.
But the Accord says the RCC is not yet up to the task.
"Our assessment is that currently the RCC isn't yet ready to take over all of the functions and work of the Accord," said Joris Oldenziel, a spokesman for the Accord.
The government said it will work toward ensuring factory safety even after the Accord exits.
"There will be no lapses... this is a question of existence," said Mohammad Mofizul Islam, a commerce ministry official.
The Accord, signed by brands like H&M, Benetton and others, has been credited with improving factory safety in Bangladesh through inspections and funding for improvements.
"We have a feeling that it may not be possible for others to repeat what the Accord has achieved in Bangladesh," said Rani Khan, general secretary of another trade union, the Mukto Garment Sramik Federation.
By Serajul Quadir and Ruma Paul; additional reporting by Sai Sachin Ravikumar; editors: Euan Rocha and Robert Birsel.