A collection of UK brands have been accused of delaying their decision to re-commit to the Bangladesh fire and building safety accord.
John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and Next have yet to sign the new agreement, while Sainsbury’s has decided not to sign at all.
Jenny Holdcroft, assistant general secretary of IndustriALL, one of the founders of the accord, said it was “quite unusual” for a group of brands to collectively not sign.
Speaking to SM, she said that there are other small brands that have not yet signed. But the high street brands from the UK stand out as the only large group sourcing from Bangladesh that have not yet signed.
The 2013 Bangladesh fire and building safety accord is a legally binding agreement between brands and unions to improve workers’ rights in Bangladesh. It covers more than 1,600 factories and implements a regulatory system that includes independent factory inspections, provides funds for remediation where there have been rights violations, and empowers workers through training and complaints mechanisms.
The agreement was a direct response to the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, where more than 1,100 people died when a factory collapsed. The deal expires in May and is to be replaced by the 2018 Transition Accord – which is substantially the same as the original agreement.
The new accord has already been signed by global brands that include H&M, Adidas, Inditex – which owns Zara – and Primark.
Debenhams said it was reviewing the new accord with other signatories of the current agreement, and would be in a position to make a final decision before the existing accord expires.
Next said there was a “lack of clarity” around the terms of the new accord that needed to be resolved before it could make a decision. It added: “If Next decides not to sign [the new accord] it is confident that it already has a competent, directly employed code of practice team and office in place in Bangladesh, to manage safety in that region.”
Marks and Spencer told SM it was not required to make a decision until May and it was currently in talks with other UK retailers, brands and stakeholders before deciding whether or not to sign up.
But Holdcroft said that by delaying their decision to sign the new accord was bringing uncertainty to the deal. “It means that it’s not clear that the factories that provide to [the UK retailers] will even be covered by the new accord,” she said.
“The first signatures [to the new accord] were made in June last year… Now the work needs to be done to figure what budget we need, what operations we need,” she said. There is a lot of work to be done, and those who have not yet made the commitment to continue are not part of that, she added.
Brands that do not sign up to the accord are opened up to reputational risk, Holdcroft warned. “If the UK brands don’t sign the accord then they’re leaving it to other brands to carry the can and to make sure that the factories remain safe and the industry remains safe for everybody who continues to source from Bangladesh.
“They’re kind of collectively deciding they don’t want to participate in the industry wide work that needs to be done to keep the Bangladesh garment industry safe,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Clean Clothes Campaign, an NGO that has an alliance with the accord, said it was “unfathomable” the UK brands had not signed up. They said: “Not signing will mean that British brands will be left without a credible strategy to address their due diligence obligation to ensure the safety of workers stitching their clothes.
“This means that they will have their clothes produced in factories without credible safety inspections or will be free riding and profiting from the efforts of other brands that did commit to the 2018 accord.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson confirmed to SM it would not be signing the new accord, but said: “We’re actively involved in the discussions taking place with the Accord Steering Group and other European brands to ensure this important progress continues and so a sustainable legacy can be maintained with third parties in Bangladesh.”
John Lewis has not yet responded to a request for comment.
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