BBC interview: Jennings warns repercussions of Rana Plaza won’t go away
UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings told BBC World Service that the impact of the Rana Plaza tragedy in which more than 1,100 workers, mainly young women, died in April 2013, will not be forgotten.
Jennings told the BBC’s Business Daily programme that if any brands or governments thought that the memory of the Rana Plaza victims would we swept under the carpet, they were very much mistaken.
“There may be this feeling or sentiment that this issue is just going to go away: those images of Rana Plaza and the sheer numbers involved, over a thousand dead and two thousand injured, the tears, the emotion and the drama that came to people’s homes’ around the world, has made this still a very current matter, it has been etched in peoples’ minds, they can’t forgot this. There is this hope that this is all just going to go away. It will not,” Jennings said.
Jennings had a stark message for the Bangladesh government: must do better.
“What bothers us above all in Bangladesh is that the Bangladesh government is dragging its heels on labour law reform, it is dragging its heels in putting a proper factory inspection regime in place,” he said.
Jennings added that the Bangladesh government must not be adversely influenced by the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
He also drew attention to the shortfall in funding required for the Rana Plaza compensation fund. There has been a positive response to the call Jennings made at the OECD Forum on Responsible Business recently, but around 22 million US$ is still needed to reach the 40 million US$ goal.
Hear the whole BBC interview with Philip Jennings and the rest of the programme which includes a comment by the Bangladeshi Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed who insists factories are safer as well as a debate between writer and journalist Tansy Hoskins, author of “Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion” and Ben Powell, director of the Free Market Institute.
Hoskins points out the Bangladesh Accord which now has more than 180 brands signed up would never have happened without the driving force of the global unions, UNI and IndustriALL. Hoskins also refutes Powell’s arguments that the kind of sweatshops housed in Rana Plaza are in some way the beginnings of economic and social development in a developing country.
Bangladesh Accord: where are we now?
It's over a year since Bangladesh suffered the worst industrial accident in modern history and UNI, IndustriALL and number of leading NGOs took action to try to prevent the next Rana Plaza tragedy. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety Accord, negotiated by UNI and IndustriALL, is improving the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers but much still needs to be done, especially in terms of leadership from the Bangladesh government and compensation from brands with any links to Rana Plaza.
The compensation fund stands at US$18m, far short of the US$40m needed to adequately compensate the 1,138 victims, the injured and their families. However there are positive signs that more pressure is being put on the brands linked to Rana Plaza to force them to pay up. Recently, seven OECD governments committed to confronting the responsible brands headquartered in their countries and demand that they pay full compensation. The TUC is also putting the pressure on UK brands such as Matalan.
A full scale factory inspection programme is underway. Each factory is inspected for structural integrity and fire and electrical safety. By October this year, the Accord team will have inspected 1,500 factories. This dedicated team of more than 100 technical experts and engineers are conducting more than 30 inspections per week.
So far, more than 850 factories have been inspected for fire and electrical issues and 930 for structural safety.
The accord is a legally binding agreement signed by UNI and IndustriALL, a number of Bangladeshi unions, with more than 180 brands from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. Almost half of all Bangladeshi factories for the export market and two million workers are covered by its scope.
The global labour movement and NGOs had tried to establish an independent safety inspection regime for Bangladesh – the world's second largest national garment industry – for years but without success. Rana Plaza proved to be the tragic tipping point for change. IndustriALL and UNI developed a five year, legally binding plan, and told the brands the clock was literally ticking with a deadline set for midnight 15 May. What started as a trickle of brands (48 hours before the deadline only a handful of brands had signed up) became a flood. To date 183 brands have signed the Accord.
Transparency is a key feature of the Accord – inspection reports are available on the Bangladesh accord website
Each inspection reveals the full scale of lax standards fire and safety standards dating back decades. A total of 14 buildings have been found to be critically unsafe requiring temporary evacuation for complete closure.
This means that we have ensured that roughly 30.000 workers are no longer in highly unsafe buildings which could cause another Rana Plaza like disaster. In seven of those cases it was subsequently determined that partial occupation under strict conditions could be allowed, for instance by removing large amounts of weight from higher floors. According to the Accord text, the brands are working with factory owners to ensure that workers' wages are being paid even when the factories are closed.
Every single factory has revealed critical issues that must be dealt with as a condition of doing business with signatory brands in future. Common problems, include an absence of fire doors, lockable gates at exits, buildings not designed to hold their load, inadequate fire stairs on exit routes, automatic fire alarms requiring upgrades, and the need for better support for, and enclosure of, electrical cables.
By May next year the Bangladesh accord will have completed its first round of inspections. The next challenge will be to ensure that all necessary renovations and repairs are made on a timely basis. Under the accord the brands are responsible for ensuring that renovations are financially feasible, through improved pricing, loans or other means.
Although the remit of the accord is limited to fire and structural and electrical safety, the Accord aims create a sustainable model of health and safety responsibility and accountability with workers on the shop floor fully engaged.
All of the signatories, brands and unions are committed to doing there upmost to ensuring there is no repeat of Rana Plaza. This is more than the just the biggest business story of the last 18 months, it is a line in the sand that there can no longer be business as usual along the global supply chain. Rana Plaza has changed the rules of the global supply chain forever.