Bearing the expenditure of the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) from September onwards may become a fresh burden on the country's apparel manufacturers as the council's major partners, the Accord signatory brands, are not willing to continue handling the expenses.
Sources say the RSC currently needs about $6.5 million to bear its annual expenditure, which is paid by the Accord signatory brands.
The Transition Accord, which expired in May, represents brands in the RSC. Due to the pandemic, global trade unions, fashion brands, and apparel makers have agreed to continue bearing the RSC's expenses for a further three months.
Trade unions say brands that were in the Transition Accord should sign another deal with them if they want to continue in the RSC.
Industry people say it is the brands' responsibility to pay the RSC expenditure as the council has been operating within the regulatory framework in line with the laws of Bangladesh.
The RSC also retains all health and safety inspections and remediation as well as safety training and compliance handling functions so far carried out by the Accord.
Under the agreement, before leaving, Accord has to transfer all its operations, staff, infrastructure and functions to the RSC.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association Vice-President Shahidullah Azim is of the view that the brands should pay for the RSC as per the previous agreement.
"As entrepreneurs, we are also investing to make factories safer as per the brands' recommendations," he said.
He said the Accord signatory brands had agreed to pay for the RSC for the next three months, adding he hoped they would continue payments till May next year.
"If apparel entrepreneurs want to bear a part of the RSC expenditure, they will need permission from the BGMEA and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) annual general meetings," he said.
Trade unions are now trying to demonstrate their authority in choosing who will continue in the RSC, which is totally irrelevant, he added. "They asked the brands to sign separate agreements with them before joining the RSC."
BGMEA Vice-President Miran Ali said the legally-binding agreement that campaigners want to see restored was so ambiguous as to be meaningless. He claimed it had never been exercised even once during the entire period of the Accord.
He said the RSC is more democratic than Accord as it equally comprises representatives of factory owners, brands and retailers and trade unions.
The RSC is a different creature, he said.
Miran Ali further said this desire to have a so-called legally-binding agreement is purely grandstanding on the part of the trade unions and non-governmental organisations.
"Bangladesh in 2013 went through a tragedy. It was not just a national tragedy but also a global one," he said.
"But now we have a truly national organisation, the RSC, which reflects the brands buying from Bangladesh, the unions representing workers in Bangladesh, and the global trade unions," added Miran, who is also a board member of the RSC.
Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation President Kalpona Akter said the Rana Plaza disaster would not have happened if factory owners had followed the law.
She said the Rana Plaza collapse was a homicide rather than an accident.
"We need brands to sign a new agreement to make sure that our factories are safer," she said. "Some brands have already done it and the rest have to sign it also. Otherwise, they have to face arbitration in their own country."
She went on to say, "We want to make sure that a disaster like Rana Plaza does not happen again in Bangladesh or in other countries that have a history of industrial accidents, such as Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Egypt and Morocco."
"We want to sign this agreement so that brands have more obligations because in Bangladesh we have a culture of bypassing laws," added Kalpona Akter, who is founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity.
She also said the Transition Accord had got a three-month extension due to the pandemic.
"We do not think Accord will exist in Bangladesh as they have some legal directives to follow, but the RSC should follow the Accord's framework", she added.
How RSC was formed
In May last year, an agreement was signed by the BGMEA, BKMEA, workers' representatives from home and abroad, and Accord representatives to form the RSC.
The RSC board has 18 members – six from Accord, six from apparel exporters, and six from labour leaders.
After operating for seven years in Bangladesh, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety was abolished in May last year through the signing of the RSC agreement.
Though Accord's tenure ended in June 2018, the government had it extended three times.
Accord has handed over its responsibility to the RSC.
Accord and Alliance were formed for five years to improve working conditions at garment factories in Bangladesh in light of the Rana Plaza collapse on 24 April 2013, which left over 1,100 people dead.
According to the BGMEA, Accord provided compliance certificates to only 200 out of 1,600 factories in the country till May last year.
Bangladesh's apparel industry has experienced a significant improvement in safety and compliance due to the pressure created by Accord and Alliance. Factory owners' good intentions also played a critical role.
Factory owners have also invested millions of dollars to be compliant as per international standards. As a result, Bangladesh has the highest number of green factories.
The US Green Building Council has already certified 143 factories and over 500 are in the process of obtaining certifications.
A recent survey report released by the Hong Kong-based supply chain compliance solutions provider Qima ranked Bangladesh second in ethical manufacturing, behind only Taiwan.
Vietnam came in third, followed by Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, China, India and Brazil.
The ethical auditing report covered a vast horizon of compliance and ethical manufacturing issues, such as hygiene, health and safety, waste management, child and young labour, labour practices, forced labour, worker representation, disciplinary practices and discrimination, and working hours and wages.