Historic Safety Accord Holds Companies Responsible for Contractors’ Working Conditions—Most U.S. Companies Lagging

By Bjorn Claeson

ready to hear more about the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.  For the first time since
apparel brands and retailers started to contract production overseas, a sizable
group of major apparel companies have accepted legal responsibility for
workers’ safety in contractor factories.

The Accord,
a binding and enforceable agreement between unions and so far 40 major apparel
brands and retailers
, is a radical departure from the voluntary, unenforceable
and ineffective codes of conduct and social compliance programs companies have developed
over the last 20 years.

record for corporate voluntary social compliance programs has been dismal, and
this year more so than ever. In the last
eight months, more than 1,500 workers in Bangladesh and Pakistan have
suffocated, burned, and been crushed to death making the most ordinary consumer
good: clothing.  Every worker who died
made clothing for export, sold mostly by well-known brands and retailers.  These companies assured consumers the
clothing was made ethically, the factories audited for compliance and certified
to be safe with decent working conditions. Yet, the factories were illegal,
lacked building permits, and violated basic safety standards.

By contrast, the Accord requires companies to participate in and fund a
program of independent safety inspections, remediation, and worker safety
trainings with the involvement of trade unions. 
They must maintain commercial terms that enable factories to maintain
safe workplaces and finance repairs.  A
Steering Committee consisting of an equal number of representatives of trade
unions and companies and one representative of the International Labor
Organization is empowered to decide disputes between the signatory parties.  The parties may appeal Steering Committee decisions
to an Arbitrator, whose decision is final and enforceable in a court of law.

Thus far only two U.S. companies have
signed the Accord: PVH Corporation, parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger (the first company to commit to the agreement in
March of 2012), and Abercrombie & Fitch.  Gap has
said it will not sign the agreement because it is enforceable in courts.  Walmart has announced it will expand its own
private, non-binding social auditing efforts with auditing giant, Bureau
Veritas, rather than sign the Accord. 
The National Retail Federation said the Accord was a narrow “special
interest” initiative and joined the American Apparel and Footwear Association
in announcing another non-binding program that excludes unions and labor
groups. That initiative, which
reportedly includes JC Penney, Sears, and Macy’s, has not yet been made public.

The Accord is historic in requiring
companies to take legal and financial responsibility for worker safety in
contract factories and to work with unions as equal partners.  In
the United States, working conditions in the apparel industry improved
significantly when buyers, contractors, and unions negotiated  “jobber agreements” that recognized that the
lead firm in the industry, the jobber, or “buyer” in today’s terminology, was
responsible for wages and working conditions at the bottom of the chain.  The Accord represents an opportunity to make
similar advances for garment workers worldwide. 
It should be fully implemented in Bangladesh and expanded to other
countries where garment workers work in unsafe conditions.
Learn more and take action here: laborrights.org/safety.

Bjorn Skorpen Claeson is Senior Policy Analyst with the International
Labor Rights Forum
, Executive Director of the Sweatfree Purchaing
, and cofounder of SweatFree Communities.