Reflecting on Rana Plaza: The Evolution of Corporate Engagement on Human Rights in Supply Chains since the 2013 disaster

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Marti Flacks: Good morning. Welcome to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and today’s event, reflecting on Rana Plaza, the evolution of corporate engagement on human rights in supply chains since the 2013 disaster. My name is Marti Flacks. I’m the director of the Human Rights Initiative and Khosravi chair in principled internationalism. And I’ll serve as your moderator for today’s conversation. I want to thank the International Labour Organization office here in Washington, D.C. for their support for today’s event, and the work that you all do every day in support of human rights.

As we reflect on Rana Plaza and the disaster that took place 10 years ago today, the largest garment factory disaster, it served – it was not the first workplace disaster. Unfortunately, it will not be the last. But it was an important inflection point for companies, for governments – both home governments and host governments – and for civil society and worker organizations to think about new approaches to addressing both the building safety and health and worker safety that caused the collapse, but also the underlying issues that pressured workers to go back to a building, even if it had been – after it had been declared unsafe.

It resulted in some new and creative approaches, including binding agreements between workers and brands that tested a new model of cooperation and collaboration. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, known as the Bangladesh Accord, that has since been tested in other contexts in other countries. We’re going to unpack some of these issues, some of the progress that’s been made over the last 10 years, and where there are still gaps and still challenges facing workers every day in today’s session.

We have a packed session. We have a fantastic lineup of experts with deep, deep experience both in Bangladesh itself but also globally on worker issues, on worker safety and human rights issues, and supply chains. Our program is going to run in two stages. We’re going to start with some brief, prerecorded remarks from Department of Labor Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs Thea Lee.

We’re then going to be joined remotely by Kalpona Akter from Bangladesh. Kalpona is a founding member and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity. She’s a former child worker in Bangladesh’s garment factories, and she campaigns for fair wages, factory safety, the right to form labor unions, and collectively bargain. And she’s going to reflect on the disaster itself and what’s happened in the 10 years since then. And we’re very grateful that she was able to join us from Bangladesh today.

We’re then going to be joined by four panelists up on stage, and have a discussion with them on those issues, and I will introduce them in turn when they join me on stage. But first, please join me in welcoming Thea Lee. (Applause.)

Thea Lee: Thank you to CSIS for organizing today’s program. Ten years ago today more than 1,100 workers were killed and more than 2,500 injured when the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka collapsed. We gather today to mourn these workers, to take stock of the progress we’ve made, and to reflect on the work ahead to make the global garment industry one where workers can enjoy safe and healthy workplaces and decent work.

Rana Plaza revealed severe shortcomings in the model often referred to as corporate social responsibility. In recognition of the failure that resulted in such a tragic loss of life, 220 apparel companies signed an agreement with global unions and their Bangladesh affiliates to create a worker-driven social responsibility instrument. This was the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The Accord has proven to be a viable and impactful model, with its legally binding and enforceable commitments, obligations placed on suppliers by brands, a key role for labor unions in implementation and governance, and unprecedented transparency. A number of other noteworthy initiatives have since built on the Accords model. These include the Dindigul agreement in South India and the Lesotho Agreement, aimed at ending gender-based violence and harassment at work.

Whatever name you use – human rights, due diligence, corporate accountability, ESG, or sustainable business practices – sustainable interventions must place workers and their unions at the center of their strategies and solutions to realize the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. They must hold industry and companies accountable for their supply chains. And they must ensure that governments take responsibility for complying with their international obligations to support labor rights – both in law and in practice.

U.S. Department of Labor is delighted to participate in today’s discussions to help advance the transition to a new and more sustainable compliance model, and to see what support companies, unions, and governments need to make this the new reality in garments, and across the global economy. Binding agreements, unionization, and collective bargaining are all necessary to achieve safer workplaces, decent, and dignified work.

This historic shift from voluntary to binding would be an appropriate way to honor the memory of the workers of Rana Plaza. Let us look ahead boldly and imagine a new industry built upon legally binding agreements, a strong regulatory framework, and shared accountability among governments, international brands, suppliers, and trade unions. Thank you.

Ms. Flacks: Thank you so much, Deputy Undersecretary Lee.

Let’s now turn to Kalpona Akter. Kalpona, thank you so much for being with us today. The floor is yours.

Kalpona Akter:  OK, hi. Good morning, everyone. It is really an honor to be part of this program today – this event today. I just wanted to contribute how accord has made a phenomenal change here in Bangladesh regarding workplace safety.

So as all of you know, today is 10 years – 10th year of anniversary of Rana Plaza. Ten years ago, we lost our 1,138 sisters and brothers in a preventable factory disaster – preventable. Two years before Rana Plaza, we started a thing called Agreement on Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety. And we tried our best to reach out to every single brand that we could, along with many of our friends organization in the U.S. and Europe, like Worker Rights Consortium, ILRF, Clean Clothes Campaign. So none of them literally listened to us. Our voice was loud and clear that the corporate social program, all these CS programs, really not helping. All these emissaries are really not helping to save our workers’ lives.

But meanwhile, the brands was dragging the time. And we got, like, two horrifying fire in between, two or three or more. And then we got the biggest one in 2012, Tazreen Fashion, and then the preventable one everyone knows, which is Rana Plaza. And at least, you know, after Rana Plaza we got all these brands, over 200 – around 200 of them, or 200 of them – who signed this Accord on Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety. For the first time, an agreement has been signed between union and companies, and the nature of agreement was binding, as all you know. And that is the beauty of accord.

First time worker received the voice to say no to unsafe work. The first time the workers in the workplace, they understood that they are not every other equipment in the factory. They are human being. And this program will be taking care of them. First time we union empowered that building inspectors, when they will be inspecting the factories, we can ask our members to join them. And building inspectors, they go into the factory, they included workers, they hear from them that, you know, what was the safety problem in the factory when they had been working inside. And workers free to say that. And as you know, over 150,000 safety hazards has been found throughout these 10 years. Now we can proudly say that we have safest factories in Bangladesh. And the phenomenal change that has been, it is by accord.

Two years ago, the accord has been hand over to its successor, called RMG Sustainable Council. We can talk about that before. I just wanted to give a couple of example of how transformation has happened. If I can, you know, give example, one of the factory workers, where they found that after accord and inspections that factory has been reloading all the laws they have introduced after an inspection. The union leaders, they went to the accord and lodged a complaint that this is what our factory management did, because factory management did not listen to the union or their leaders.

So then there was this, you know, inspection is done, and the building inspectors really found that, yes, there is a safety violation has happened, factory reloaded the laws. And due to that complaint, nine union leaders got fired. And they didn’t stop. They fought for nine months in a row, and then they were reinstated. How that was possible? Because the grievance mechanism that accord has. And that grievance mechanism, the first time we got that some program that is protecting workers. The workers don’t need to face any reprisal being complaining any safety hazards, or telling anyone that my life is not safe in this factory.

After nine months of the fight, these workers got reinstated with all their back pay. And the union leaders are still in the factory. So then the transformation has happened. Now we can proudly say that 2.2 million – over 2 million workers are working in a safe workplace, while we have 4 million workers. That tells that yet we have 2 million workers are working in a workplace which is not inspected as a code standard. So we still a long way to go to improve the safety in the whole industry.

If we will compare, like, a few other accident that happen out of the RMG sector, that really speaks volumes that why we are just telling that accord has made a phenomenal change. It’s because our law is not adequate and all the department we have who’s supposed to monitor and regulate all these factories, that they have all the safety equipment, the workers are safe when they are working in the factory, we have, like, less resources what our authority says. So that’s why, you know, the differences you can see, what difference accord has been made.

So since the RMG Sustainable Council has been working, we see some shortfalls and we’re really a little worried about it. And the shortfalls, one of them are the power – you know, there is no equal power involved. So this is one. And our factory management here are amazingly powerful. Many of our legislator is our factory owner. So we really have a very narrow avenue to let the government to hear our voices. We also heard that they are planning to include non-accord factories. If that happened, that can be another CSR model. And, again, as I said in the beginning, the CSR model will be not helping.

The accord is a proven improvement that has been done here, and also we are – proudly can say that it has been standard in Pakistan now, and we’ll be seeing that our sisters and brothers in Pakistan will be not dying in the hundreds that they’re doing now. Accord will be pretty soon working in Pakistan, and we believe that the safety improvement will be happening soon.

In last 10 years if you ask me that one improvement that Bangladesh workers has been received, or what changes has been changing their livelihood it’s one, safety. We are not dying hundreds like 2013. But a long way to go. It’s a long road ahead. We still need to improve the freedom of association. We need to still improve the area of gender-based violence. We need to still improve the area of social protection, which is really, really needed.

So I wanted to stop here, and I’ll be happy to answer any questions. I mean, is there any way to respond to any question you have? Thank you.

Ms. Flacks: Thank you so much, Kalpona. (Applause.) Really appreciate those remarks and that perspective from the ground on both the progress and the challenges that continue to be – to be faced there.

We’re now going to be joined our panelists up on stage. So can I invite you all to please join us? Kalpona, I know it’s very late where you are. And so I appreciate your being here. If you’re able to stay and listen we would love that, but we understand if you also need to go at any point. But thank you all very much for being with us. We have a really incredible lineup today of folks with a depth of experience working on this issue. I’m going to briefly introduce each of them, and then we’re going to do an opening round of questions for each of you.

To my left, we have Kelly Fay Rodriguez, special representative for international labor affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To her left is Mick Bride, senior vice president for corporate responsibility and global affairs at PVH Corporation. On my right we have Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. And on our far right, Neeran Ramjuthan, program manager for labor administration and working conditions at the International Labour Organization. Thank you all so much for being here.

I want to start by posing to all of you an initial question, reflecting on the depth of experience that each of you have in Bangladesh, in many cases, but working on labor issues. What are one or two lessons that you took away from the Rana Plaza disaster itself, the creation of the accord, and that system that you now apply to your work?

Kelly, I’m going to start with you, because you’ve spent some time in Bangladesh. You’ve worked on this issue. What lessons did you then bring into your work in the U.S. government?

Kelly Fay Rodriguez:  Sure, thank you. Thanks so much to CSIS, to the ILO, to Kalpona for joining us. Really important to have you here with us today. I would say I agree with Kalpona. I think the biggest – one of the biggest lessons coming out is the importance of freedom of association, in particular worker agency. We know that without worker voice we can’t have human rights and labor standards in supply chains. We also can’t have resilient economic systems, sustainable supply chains.

So we learned, I certainly learned, the importance of having workers be able to speak up about conditions. Whether it’s identifying a crack in the wall and so that – you know, that a factory could collapse. Whether it’s preventing fires from happening in workplaces. But it’s also about agency to determine – to contribute to determining wages, hours, roles and responsibilities, the things that make a workplace efficient and productive.

We’ve learned that we need governments and the private sector to be more proactive, to ensure that they are diligent and careful about protecting labor rights. And that means, in particular, for affirmatively addressing unfair labor practices, ending criminalization of trade unionists, because it chills the rights of workers. And after Rana Plaza drew the world’s attention to the really – you know, the degree of precarious conditions in Bangladesh, we saw a – really a dramatic increase in worker organization and in unionization.

I lived and worked in Dhaka from 2018 to 2020. I helped lead the Solidary Center, AFL-CIO’s program in Bangladesh. I worked closely with Kalpona Akter, with Babul Akhter, Raju Alam, and Nazma Akter. And I saw them and their union leaders, their federations, work daily to address obstacles that they face in trying to empower workers, and really in an industry that’s quite hostile to worker organizing. My team worked closely to provide technical and legal support and training for those workers, for the factory-level leaders.

And we saw a few that were able to overcome the obstacles to actually be able to organize. In some cases, important cases, they have secured some of the most forward-leaning collective bargaining agreements that you could find in any sector, in any workplace really, in Bangladesh. For the most part, therefore, the members are women workers. And they’re able to – they’ve been able to achieve higher wages, access to childcare, health care, and access to social dialogue – a platform to be able to negotiate with employers to address issues – negotiate and address issues before they escalate.

More commonly, unfortunately, workers face unionbusting and other unfair labor practices, such as harassment, intimidation, violence, false criminal charges, gender-based violence and harassment, and worse. One example – unfortunately, actually, those conditions aren’t only in Bangladesh. We see that in other places. But one important example from Bangladesh that I’d like to talk about is from 2019, the worker – the crackdown on worker rights.

It was a pretty terrifying time, I think, for trade unionists in Dhaka. And there was widespread mobilization – mass mobilization of workers, protests, over new wage policies. Employers exploited that by lodging dozens of false criminal charges against workers, trade unionists in particular, despite the fact that the protest mostly happened at non-unionized factories. Government authorities arrested dozens of workers. Companies blacklisted thousands of workers. And you would see photos and names of these workers on billboards outside of the factories.

This sent a clear message about what happens when workers try to assert their voice. And this is why we need such strong and affirmative action by governments and the private sector to reverse – to start to reverse the chilling effect that that had. One case during that time that I will never forget is where six trade union leaders had negotiated with management to address the wage issues. They signed an agreement with the Ministry of Labor and industrial police president. And the next day, everybody went back to work.

And that night, they went home and they were picked up by the Rapid Action Battalion, a specialized law enforcement branch. They were beaten. They were detained for 24 hours and then imprisoned for two weeks before lawyers could get them out. And those kinds of things happen, right? Since that time, many of the case against the workers have been resolved, have been settled. But to my knowledge, not a – and I tried to verify this – but not a single employer or government official has been held accountable for any false charges or the criminalization of workers during that time or since then, because there have been more since then.

Because there have been more since then. In fact, today one of the trade union leaders – internationally recognized trade union leaders has two criminal cases against him for separate factories where workers are trying to organize. This is evidence that while the accord makes substantial progress on structural reform and building safety, and really importantly opened the door for worker agency and voice, much more needs to be done.

Since the accord reformed into the locally owned mechanism, the RSC that Kalpona mentioned, union participation has been diluted, unfortunately. Employers and brands dominate the structure and the decision-making process. And labor advocates are concerned that egregious labor violations, including occupational health and safety, fire building safety violations may not be properly addressed.

So, you know, the USG has – the government has made very clear the importance of freedom of association in U.S. government policy. You can look to the U.S., Mexico, Canada Trade Agreement as evidence. But the experiences I’ve heard from workers on the ground in Dhaka only confirms for me the belief that unless we take clear and bold action to show the world the value of workers, then the underlying conditions that allowed for the Rana Plaza collapse will continue.

Ms. Flacks: Thanks, Kelly.

Ms. Rodriguez: Thank you.

Ms. Flacks: And so centering the agency of workers and the organization of workers, and the enabling environment for that, is a key takeaway.

Mick, let me turn to you. You spent some time in Bangladesh working for the accord. So you know this agreement literally inside and out. You’ve seen it from every angle – the civil society side, inside, and now at a company. What lessons did you take from that experience in Bangladesh that you now bring to making this argument inside PVH Corporation?

Michael Bride: Thanks, Marti. And I just want to, first of all, reiterate what Kelly said with thanks to CSIS and ILO for hosting the event. And as I answer that I’m smiling a little bit, because I see my former boss Rob Wayss in the audience here. (Laughter.) So I’ll be somewhat careful about how I answer this.

But I think – look, when I think back to the formation of the accord and what happened in Rana Plaza – and I was on – I was working on the labor side at the time. And I still remember the text messages coming in from our fellow panelist, Scott Nova, as I was coming in on the metro. This was pre-remote work. And that something happened in Bangladesh. We don’t yet have a clear picture. And Scott was making predictions by text. And they turned out to be much worse than anyone could have predicted.

But I think, for me, if I were to try to step back a little bit and look at – you know, what did I learn from that time, and it was the underrecognized power of relationships. And because I think what’s highlighted and what’s spoken about quite a lot is the accord is a legally binding mechanism. And that’s absolutely valid, no question. But the fact remains, there were only two arbitrations taken in the past 10 years, despite the fact there’s an arbitration clause in the accord. And you can argue the arbitration clause itself is a – is an incentive to settle a matter before it gets to – and I would completely accept that.

I think the second thing I would say, and this was crucial, is that what’s not talked about – what’s talked about a lot is the campaigning and the rights-based approach, et cetera. What’s not talked about is what the European – mainly European trade unions did to get those Europeans brands, at the time, to actually sign the accord. And I remember Scott and I were in my office one night, probably like 1:00 a.m. – on calls back to trade unions in Europe.

And we intentionally brought UNI Global Union, which is one of the cosignatories, into the conversation because IndustriALL Global Union represents manufacturing workers, including garment workers. UNI Global Union represents retail workers. And, you know, before – I think before the accord came down, we didn’t actually consciously, deliberately make that connection between how to talk to the brands.

And I’d be interested to see if Scott agrees with this or not, but we had trade unions who had decades-long collective bargaining relationships with those brands and retailers in those countries. So we had Unionen that handles in Sweden that were talking to H&M. We had CCOO and UGT talking to Inditex. We had FNV Bondgenoten, as it then was, in the Netherlands talking to C&A. We had Mandate in Ireland talking to Primark. And then at the time I was based in Washington with the UFCW, and I was talking to Loblaw.

So you had – brands could turn around to a labor organization – which, by the way, you know, they had tough negotiations over the years, but there’s an underlying trust there built up over decades of collective bargaining agreement. And a lot’s been made between the distinction of the accord and the alliance. I think objective, and I speak as a former and reformed lawyer, the accord is absolutely no doubt a much agreement just on its face, no question. But I think what was interesting is we lacked that relationship – preexisting relationship in the U.S. to have a different kind of a conversation with U.S. brands, who purely saw the union element as an existential threat.

And I think, you know, when I went in 2016, moved to Dhaka and worked for the accord, that gave me a very different perspective from the labor side, where you’re on the inside and you’re working with brands, with unions, with labor rights activists, and pulling people together. So I think, for me, it reinforced the idea that relationships matter. But I think they have to go in tandem with the external elements, which I’ll leave Scott and others to think about, because you have to have companies willing to have an appetite to sign. But once they have that appetite, I do think what we need to think about more deliberately as we look to expand this model and to move it elsewhere is where’s the bridge? Where is that interlocutor that we can bring people together to talk a common language?

Ms. Flacks: Yeah, so I’m going to come back to you at some point on is there progress being made among U.S. companies on this issue since then. But you can think about that. I’m going to turn to Scott, since you two have worked together on this for so long, but you also have this depth of experience at the time of the disaster and since then working on these issues. From those negotiations that Mick was just referencing and that experience, what lessons did you take away?

Scott Nova: Well, first of all, I do agree with Mick that those preexisting relationships in Europe between labor unions and key brands were important, and that UNI Global Union played a crucial role in bringing the agreement to a conclusion in May of 2013.

But getting back to your original question, Marti, and the lessons, I think the fundamental lesson of Rana Plaza is that global corporations will not regulate themselves. And that if we allow them to regulate themselves, as we did in the context of global apparel brands and retailers in their manufacturing supply chains, the results will be terrible. It’s very important to bear in mind that Rana Plaza, of course, was the worst disaster in Bangladesh, the worst mass fatality disaster, but by no means the first. There were two dozen documented mass fatality disasters, dating back to the early 2000s. In 2005 and 2006 alone in Bangladesh there were seven different mass fatality disasters, collectively killing more than 200 workers. Two structural collapses, five fires.

And the brands and retailers, of course, were conducting what they call social audits in these factories in Bangladesh on a constant basis. And as organizations like ours were calling the question with them in 2005, and 2006, and 2007, and 2008 about the need to do more about the safety of workers in the midst of this parade of catastrophe, their answer was: We’re doing it. We’ve got the programs in place. We’re working on the issue. We’re addressing it. And yet, workers continue to die. And it’s important to reflect on the question of, how is that possible? How can these multibillion dollar, vastly sophisticated global corporations, whose business is about executing minute control over what happens in the global supply chain, fail so miserably at something so basic that they actually say they are doing?

And what became clear in the months leading up to and after the creation of the accord is that the brands and retailers had never incorporated into their own audit protocols the two fundamental safety issues that were leading to worker deaths. These are buildings with structural columns insufficiently strong to hold up the structure, and multistory factories without proper fire exit systems. None of the brands and retailers included fire exit systems and structural integrity in their audit protocols, which is how it was possible to do these thousands of audits – including audits in the very factories in which workers died – and fail to identify, much less address, the hazards that were killing them.

And the lesson I take away from that is we cannot create a situation in which global corporations whose primary motivations, of course, cannot – by definition – be the safety of workers to do this on their own. To me, the biggest culprit here is not the global brands and retailers, it’s not the government of Bangladesh. It is 30 years of trade policy in the United States and Europe, all of which was about promoting the free flow of capital and goods across borders, while shielding global corporations from any legal accountability for anything that happens to workers in their global supply chains. And when you do that, what you get is corporate self-regulation in a wild west labor rights circumstance. And then you follow that progress logically, what’s often been called the race to the bottom.

And Rana Plaza is the bottom, right? The race to the bottom ended on that morning at Rana Plaza. And if we want to not see more Rana Plazas, if we want to not see more Tazreen Fashions fires, if we want to see no more disasters in places like Pakistan – which it’s always worth remembering had the worst of all the fires. Not a building collapse, but the worst mass fatality fire in apparel industry history, also in 2012, at the Ali Enterprise facility. If we want to stop these disasters from happening, we need to regulate global corporations in a very basic way.

The good news is we’re starting to see some positive steps in that direction. Of course, we see the Bangladesh Accord. We see that model of binding, enforceable labor rights requirements replicated in the Lesotho Agreement, the Dindigul Agreement in India, which Thea mentioned. And we see the prospect for more such agreements. And we see, under the current administration in the U.S., a very significant shift away from this trade policy of simply freeing corporations from legal accountability, in the direction of actually creating some legal accountability, with the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, with efforts to really begin to enforce the forced labor provisions of the Tariff Act, with the appointment to important positions in the administration focused on international trade and labor rights, like Katherine Tai and Kelly Rodriguez.

And that’s very encouraging, because there’s only two ways we can accomplish this goal of regulating corporations effectively in the global economy. We can have more private agreements like the accord and expand them vastly across all categories of labor rights issues across all countries. Or we can actually have government regulation in the importing countries of brands and retailers that, in a very basic and straightforward way holds them legally accountable for illegal labor rights violations that happen in their supplier factories around the globe. Or we could do, ideally, both of those things in combination. And if we do, we’ll see a radical transformation of working conditions for workers around the globe across all industries, including respect for the fundamentally important right to organize, as Kelly noted.

Ms. Flacks: Thanks, Scott. That’s helpful.

Neeran, let me turn to you. You are based in Bangladesh now, so you’ve got a perspective of what’s happening at the 10-year anniversary mark. What lessons have you gained from watching this evolution over the last decade?

Neeran Ramjuthan:  All right. Thank you very much. And I think, firstly, thank you for this opportunity. And I think I speak to very ground reality issues of what happened, or currently happens, in Bangladesh. Let’s rewind 10 years ago. One thousand, one hundred and thirty-eight people were killed. Many more survived. And, you know, at the point, nobody knew what to do, OK? We fast-forward 10 years, a lot has happened. I also take my cue from what Kalpona has said. You know, 4 million workers in the sector. Today 2 million work in safe factories. And that is as a result of the work that has been done.

However, many challenges still remain. You know, going back to these 2 million that work in factories that could be considered unsafe. So what has happened and what has the ILO done? I think immediately, as an immediate reaction, the ILO together with brands, buyers, development partners, in the last 10 years have worked on issues of industrial safety, labor inspection. I think if we look at Bangladesh today, labor inspection and occupational safety and health is far better than it used to be 10 years ago.

However, it is far better in the RMG sector. You know, and sometimes I think people should also remember, Bangladesh is not the sum total of RMG. So we need to look at how do we improve beyond RMG occupational safety and health? I think we also need to understand that Bangladesh is highly characterized with an informal economy. You know, and this is where much more can be done in occupational health and safety in the informal economy.

On the issues of trade union registration – and, you know, I think I have the pleasure of working very closely with Kelly in Bangladesh as well. Indeed, we see that over the years there has been a fair amount of technical support provided to the government of Bangladesh, as well as to the trade union movement, around issues of freedom of association and collective bargaining. And fully agree that these days we do see more trade unions have registered, or trade unions are able to register.

However, there continues to be the lack of freedom of association in terms of: Once I register as a trade union, am I able to do the work that a trade union intends to do? And I think, interestingly, if we look at the particular examples given by Kelly, indeed there are cases that sit even the International Labour Organization Committee on Freedom of Association. And I think it’s an area that more can be done. The ILO offers technical support to the government as well as the trade unions. But I think we need to also think about a space where trade unions can operate freely and, you know, operate in a space without fear of, you know, being imprisoned, et cetera. And a lot more needs to be done in that particular space.

I would like to move now a bit maybe to social protection as well. You know, 10 years ago when Rana Plaza happened, there wasn’t social protection. And I think today it’s very different. You know, not too long ago, together with the government of Bangladesh, and the workers and employers, a pilot employment injury scheme has been launched in the RMG sector. And I think it’s starting to create a space where, should these types of occupational injuries or occupational accidents occur going forward, there is a clear understanding from a social protection point of view what people would be entitled to, as opposed to 10 years ago. You know, there wasn’t a space for social protection.

I also think, you know, if one looks at the opportunities for social dialogue, previously this was not the case. And in the 10 years – and, you know, in the years that I’ve been in Bangladesh – we’ve been able to work jointly with the tripartite constituents to create platforms for social dialogue, to create platforms where issues impacting on the world of work are brought to high-level dialogues. And here, we have specific examples. We have, you know, at a national level – where a dialogue can take place, and this is pertaining to dialogue on everything in the places of work. We have a very specific platform for the RMG sector, you know, given the strategic importance and economic importance. And this was largely introduced and supported by the International Labour Organization.

I think currently Bangladesh has also seen, from 2013, two amendments to the Bangladesh Labor Act, you know, that has reformed and become more worker centric. There is still in place opportunities for further amendments of the Bangladesh Act in 2023, as we speak. I think also in terms of the Bangladesh labor rules, there were new labor rules that have been enacted since Rana Plaza.

And I think for Bangladesh what’s always been the elephant in the room, if I could say that, was it’s a country that’s characterized by two sets of labor legislation. You know, labor legislation that is for the general population or general places or work, and labor legislation for economic zones. And at this stage, those don’t necessarily talk to international labor – the core, or fundamental international standards. We work closely with the government on this in the hope that we’re able to get both sets of labor legislations to be aligned with the international labor standards. And creating spaces, both inside of EZs and outside of EZs that are pretty much similar.

So maybe just to conclude, you know, yes, a lot has been done. A lot still needs to be done. And I always take comfort in concluding this with the words of, you know, the country where I come from, South Africa, and Nelson Mandela. And he always says: When you’ve climbed a mountain, you realize that there’s many more mountains to climb. And I think this is important. You know, a lot has been achieved and a lot is yet to be achieved. But the space in which it finds itself in terms of labor rights and working conditions today is a very different space in Bangladesh, as opposed to the 24th of April 2013. And I’m hopeful that, you know, it will be constantly improved as we go ahead, with the support of the International Labour Organization.

Ms. Flacks:  Thanks, Neeran. I appreciate that. I want to come back to a comment that you made, Scott, on the new structure of these binding agreements, and the applicability of them more broadly, right? And I want to – maybe I’ll start actually with Mick. You sense of, you know, PVH is now one of the earliest signers to the Bangladesh Accord, have now signed onto several of these other iterations of these binding agreements. You presumably see some value in it, and you must see some success from that.

So I wonder if you can talk to us a bit about what is the calculation that you make as a company about the value of signing into these things? How do you make that case? And then if it’s a model that you think works, do you see it applicable – or, applying more broadly across for your sector – for, in your case, the apparel sector?

Mr. Bride: Thanks, Marti. And I’ll try to keep the answer succinct, which I’m sure you appreciate it will be difficult for an Irishman. (Laughter.) So I think I would say there’s two places to make the case, right? There’s internally and then externally. And I think what’s instructive for me is that if you look at the 220 signatories of the Bangladesh Accord, and this is from memory, but I think we had about 150 who in pretty short order signed up to the international accord very shortly after the international accord was introduced.

And I think that demonstrates it. There wasn’t a white-hot spotlight. We didn’t have a terrible tragedy, like we did with Rana Plaza, that spurred the creation of the Bangladesh Accord. And I think that demonstrated that many of the companies that were members of the Bangladesh Accord and that were subject to the Bangladesh Accord actually saw a value in it and freely chose to sign the international accord and get engaged in that.

And I think from a PVH perspective, ironically, I was on the other side of the negotiating table back in 2013. And the back and forth with PVH I found very interesting from a – you know, from a U.S. company perspective, where it did seem to be a little bit more progressive at the time. I think since then what we recognize at PVH – and we use the term – you know, or folks use the term “legally binding agreement.” I use the term “joint sovereignty.”

So when I talk about, you know, these agreements with other brands that have not yet signed, I talk about joint sovereignty. I talk about being authentic. I talk about if you want to be an aspirational brand – because most of these brands speak to – they try to speak to the consumer. They try to speak to the marketplace. If you want to be an aspirational brand, inauthenticity will kill you in the market. So how are you an authentic brand? How you’re an authentic brand is to basically back up what you’re saying.

So we were one of the first signers as well of the Pakistan Accord. We have three direct factories in Pakistan. Very, very small footprint. Other brands that have already signed are already in those factories. They’re going to lead brands in those factories. But we still felt it was very important to make that statement to sign the Pakistan Accord, and say if there’s moving water about regulation, we want to be in there and we want to hold our hands up and say: We’re not going to regulate ourselves. We believe in joint sovereignty.

And the final point I’d make, and I’ve made this with other brands who I speak to privately in the U.S, who are contemplating whether to sign the Pakistan Accord, or whether to come into Act for Living Wages, or what to do about the Dindigul Agreement. So a lot of these conversations happen, you know, in the corridors, behind closed doors, so to speak. But the one point I’d make is, look, it’s not an easy process, right? You know, the board of the accord, where I now sit and where Scott sits, some of those conversations are tough. They’re not easy. It can take a little longer. It’s a little bit messier. But the outcome is far more resilient than it would be otherwise.

And I think these are fundamentally the benefits. But I think each brand has to go on that journey to get to that realization themselves.

Ms. Flacks: So that buy-in.

Scott, have U.S. companies evolved since Rana Plaza in their appreciation of this approach? Do you see progress there? And what do you think it would take to get them over the hump?

Mr. Nova: I mean, there’s been – there’s been a little progress with some brands and retailers, but by and large U.S. brands and retailers continue to sit it out, so far at least, in terms of taking meaningful action on building safety in South Asia, where these risks are greatest. I’m optimistic that we will see more U.S. brands and retailers sign the accord in Pakistan, out of recognition that it’s in their interest to do so. And it’s going to be vital. It’s a really vital question, because the prospect for moving forward beyond Pakistan, for beginning to apply this model of co-governance, joint sovereignty, legally binding agreements with unions and corporations, the prospect of expanding this model depends on moving forward effectively in Pakistan. So I’m cautiously optimistic. But we need – it’s going to take convincing for a lot of brands and retailers.

Ms. Flacks: What’s the – what do you see as the missing piece between U.S. brands and European brands?

Mr. Nova: I mean, in terms of the way that brands and retailers responded to Rana Plaza, to the proposal for a binding agreement with labor unions on the other side of the table, I think the difference in what happened in Europe and what happened in the United States has to do with the political culture of the two regions. In Europe, the fact that it was global unions that were on the other side of the table made it harder for the brands and retailers politically to refuse, because there’s a different culture around unions and their role in society in Europe. In the U.S., brands and retailers didn’t see any political cost, any reputational cost of rejecting an agreement with unions. In fact, some of them saw it as a positive reputationally. And I think that was the sort of fine line that distinguished.

And, look, it was close. You know, some more brands and retailers seriously considered signing in the U.S. at the time, and they didn’t choose to do so. And in that sense, I think we have seen some evolution. I think the politics of the role of unions in society have changed because of a recognition on the part of brands and retailers in the U.S. that young people want unions and support unions. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s reason to be optimistic about what’s going to happen in the next few months on Pakistan.

Ms. Flacks: Hmm, that’s great.

Kelly, let me turn to you and the role of the U.S. government in this, because this is – these agreements are described and, technically, are between workers and companies. But governments play an important role in supporting them, right? So I wonder if you could ask you sort of a two-part question. What the role specifically is of the U.S. government in these accords, in supporting these – or, these binding agreements? And then, sort of more broadly, about your work to support worker organizing, unionization maybe, and power, if you want to talk about that.

Ms. Rodriguez: Sure, sure. Thanks. So in the Bangladesh Accord the U.S. embassy plays a role. Our ambassador now has worked very closely with the Bangladesh government, encouraged them to collaborate – along with ILO – to reform the labor laws to bring them into compliance with international standards. We play a role in providing technical – resources for technical assistance. So the labor diplomacy piece plus the resources to make sure workers are able to actually realize the benefits of agreements like that. But, you know, we certainly want to uplift those models – the Dindigul Agreement, the Lesotho Agreement.

We are – we’ve seen the impact they can have in places like Honduras, where the Fruit of the Loom agreement, you know, predating the accord, helped produce nearly 50 percent unionization in the sector – in the garment sector in San Pedro Sula, right? That was one case that created improved conditions across the sector, because it showed workers what was possible and it showed companies that there was a benefit to the higher wages, but also to the benefits of having workers who were committed, who were trained, who had the ability to really create a productive environment – work environment.

So we’ve certainly – we’ve met with workers from the secretary through the assistant secretaries throughout the State Department. We believe in direct engagement with workers throughout the department. But we also want to uplift the models that are working, again, like Honduras, like we see in India with the Dindigul Agreement. We’ve issued awards, honored companies that have taken these actions. We’ve, in the past, issued – awarded PVH, last year to The GAP for making sure that workers in their supply chains receive the wages that they were owed during the pandemic, right? So those are a couple of ways.

But I want to go back to what Scott described in terms of sort of this evolution of U.S. government policy, and what I think – you know, going back to the first question – of, like, we’ve learned from the accord how important it is to make sure there’s a way for all of the actors in the supply chain from the brands and importers all the way down the supervisors on the floor of the factories – that all of them have to be responsible for ensuring that there are not violations, in particular freedom of association violations, in the workplace.

And I think the best example of that really, again, is the U.S., Mexico, Canada Trade Agreement, where we had bipartisan support for this legislation. We had – the first case was a self-initiated case against General Motors, right? They came to the table. They made sure that the plan that the Mexican government and the U.S. government put in place – you know, outlined was put in place. And they allowed for workers to elect, for the first time, an independent union that then went on and negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with, you know, standards we hadn’t seen, wages that had not been seen.

You know, Mexico had – previously had the lowest wages of all OECD countries, right? Like, this is – these are – these are really – this is one case, but it’s really important because, again, it sends the message to others of what’s possible, that you don’t just have to, you know, subject yourself to the lowest standards. That they’re – that it is possible to have worker voice, to actually have companies and brands – again, U.S. brands are on the hook here too – that are involved together with government to ensure standards, basic standards, throughout the supply chain.

Ms. Flacks: Thanks, Kelly. And maybe, just to follow up, in the background of all of these voluntary initiatives are an increasing regulatory environment, right? So we see that – obviously that evolution is happening in Europe at the – you know, the due diligence level. Here in the U.S. we’ve got forced labor restrictions. You alluded to them. UFLPA, the Tariff Act. The U.S. government is writing a national action plan on responsible business conduct that will presumably outline expectations that the executive branch will put out. How are you all thinking about, from your seat at State Department, how these voluntary and mandatory initiatives fit together?

Ms. Rodriguez: Well, taking the lessons learned, for sure. You know, I think we’re also applying them to multilateral settings. OECD, but also the ILO. You know, we hope to see legislation from Bangladesh that addresses the problems and makes – again makes them consistent with international standards. But where we don’t see them, we will support a call for a commission of inquiry to Bangladesh at the ILO, right? Like, that’s one place where we’re seeing – we’re seeing that over the years there’s a path towards progress, and that there needs to be these tools leveraged to ensure that we meet the minimum standards.

In terms of the national action plan, we have done really extensive, thorough research and engagement with civil society to get input on what the – what we need to do to do better in terms of allowing – of creating the platform for companies and civil society to address these issues together. And we will continue to work on that, and look forward to the new guidelines and the U.S. government’s plan for the national contact point to deliver.

Ms. Flacks: Yeah.

Neeran, let me bring you in on this question of regulation, because there’s been a lot of focus, obviously, on home government regulation – what’s happening in the U.S., what’s happening in Europe. But there’s also obviously, as you referenced a number of times, engagement on the evolution of domestic requirements in the countries where these factories are located, right? Talk a little bit about that progress that you’re seeing in terms of making the effective safety and health regulations on the ground, and where those gaps are, and the ways that ILO can engage on that?

Mr. Ramjuthan:  All right. I think, you know, if we look at – I’ll address the issue of increasingly voluntary and mandatory due diligence, and then move to the OSH.

You know, for us, as the ILO, we currently look at supporting the constituents in terms of preparedness for what these requirements on especially the mandatory due diligence is. I think it’s important – and, you know, earlier we had the point about forced labor. We just want to also ensure that the government has a framework in place to ensure that – and address forced labor. We are also looking towards that – on the issue of due diligence – that jointly with the government and the stakeholders we could move in the direction of a national action plan for a mandatory due diligence legislation from Bangladesh.

And then in terms of occupational safety and health, you know, a lot has been done – and I go back to the point – that a lot has been done in the RMG sector. But I think more needs to be done in other sectors. In terms of labor inspection, there’s been a fair amount that has been done, you know, a fair amount of labor. The labor inspectorate has now increased. Interestingly, people may not know this, at the point of Rana Plaza there were 35 labor inspectors covering the country. Today there is close to 450 labor inspectors. OK, so it’s a very different space, so, you know, from where it was 10 years ago.

However, that is not necessarily – you know, if one look at in logically, can 450 labor inspectors inspect a country with more than 20,000 enterprises? So I think, you know, on issues of labor inspection some other modality needs to be looked at. You know, look at inspections and occupational safety and health in more riskier environments, or where there’s more risk likely, as opposed to places where there is less risk. And let’s be honest, you know, RMG is not a risky sector. You know, there is far more riskier sectors – construction, you know, transport, agriculture.

So I think for the focus for the government and for us even as the ILO is to look beyond RMG and safety health beyond RMG. But I think, you know, the competence of the country on issues on occupational safety and health is in a better place than it used to be 10 years ago. And I think a lot of us would agree with that. However, having said that, you know, much more needs to be done. I think more innovation. If you look at, for example, we’ve supported the implementation of labor inspection on online applications, the LIMA. And that is helpful. So, you know, much more can be done through digitized mechanisms, OK?

And I think also in terms of the regulation, just on that, you know, maybe there needs to be the stronger sanctioning. You know, current Bangladesh labor legislation, when there is an occupational safety and health violation, you know, you pay a few takas and it’s OK. But I think the sanctions need to be increased. You know, sanctions need to be at the level at which it deters from repeat offenses. And we’re hopeful that in the next iteration of the amendment to the Bangladesh Labor Act that’s currently taking place, that these are issues that would be addressed. We’re also hopeful that in this new iteration on OSH issues, stronger sanctions, stronger deterrents are put in place, so we see lesser occurrence of these accidents.

Ms. Flacks: Thanks. I know we’re just about at time. I’m going to beg your indulgence for – I’m going to squeeze in a couple more quick questions before we go, because I want to ask Mick this question. You know, as you’re operating on – working on these voluntary initiatives, you’re operating in a very different regulatory environment. How does the changing law, particularly here in the U.S., affect your calculations?

Mr. Bride: Yeah, I think just from a – just from a company-specific perspective, I had a colleague on my team is head of European affairs. She’s based in Amsterdam. And I’ve stolen her line, which is that fashion is becoming a regulated industry. So it used to internal within the company. I would point out, oh, we’ve got this coming from here, we’ve got that coming from here. But I think the fashion sector has to change its approach and realize that we’re becoming a regulated industry. We may not be big pharma anytime soon, but we’ve got to change the way we approach this.

And what I would say, the distinction between the two, so I spend a lot of time working on these voluntary agreements. I mean, I love Scott dearly, but I’d prefer to spend a little less time talking to him. (Laughter.) And the one thing – the one thing that happens with the regulatory sphere, right, when we talk about these voluntary agreements, and you look at the brands that have signed them, generally speaking they’re brands who are either the better-acting brands or are certainly trying to be better acting. What regulatory regime does is, it raises the floor for everybody, right? It has compliance. And it creates a much more level playing field. So I think from that perspective, we would very much favor that.

And the one point I would say, however, is that there has to be two things on this. One is consistency. So, you know, within PVH, we’re not just looking at the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, or mandatory due diligence requirements in the EU. We’re also looking at, like, the PFAS law coming out of Maine on forever chemicals. We’re looking at extended producer responsibility coming out of California. We’re looking at the French decree which is regulating disclosure of what’s in our materials, in packaging, et cetera. So there’s a massive hodgepodge of different things.

And I think the American Apparel and Footwear Association, on behalf of the industry, has said: Let’s have a conversation and figure out what’s the best regulation and how do you make it consistent? Because it’s much easier for a global brand to comply with a higher standard if that’s consistent, than try to chase all of these different standards, in different countries and different states.

And then the second thing I would say is that beneath the regulation have very, very clear guidelines. So if we look at, for example, the great work I think that CBP is doing in relation to the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, I think it’s also fair to say that there’s not – it’s not clear what the targeting strategy is for CBP, or where they’re focusing. And I’m not necessarily saying they should open the books and explain to brands what’s going on, but if there was clear direction given to brands as to the trajectory in which the U.S. government is going, I think brands would be better able to reregulate their own supply chain in order to comply before the event, rather than having to follow decisions by CBP.

Ms. Flacks:  Yeah. Scott, I’m going to give you the last word. Are you tired of talking to Mick, or do you want to – (laughter) – do you want to keep going down this route? You referenced earlier how these two engage together.

Mr. Nova:  The private agreements are necessary because of the gap left by the absence of meaningful public regulation. Right now, it remains trust in the U.S. that with the sole exception of forced labor, there is nothing you, as a brand, can cause your suppliers to do through negative incentives to workers, no matter how illegal in another country, for which you as the brand are legally accountable in the United States of America. As long as we allow that to be the case, we will have an endless series of labor rights abuses. These private agreements are a vital way to fill that gap. A better way to fill that gap would be to eliminate the gap and impose meaningful regulation on global corporations in the countries in which they are domiciled, in the countries in which they sell their goods. If we do that, we’ll see the kind of radical change that’s necessary.

Ms. Flacks:  All right. Well, thank you all so much for being here. I want to thank Neeran, and Scott, and Kelly, and Mick, and Kalpona, for your really insightful comments, for the work that you’re all doing on this issue to make a difference every day. Thank you all so much for being here. Have a great day. (Applause.)