Transnational governance: responses to the Rana Plaza building collapse

Associate Professor Juliane Reinecke (image courtesy of Warwick Business School)

With the assistance of funding from the British Academy, WOW guest, Associate Professor Juliane Reinecke and her Warwick Business School (UK) colleague, Associate Professor Jimmy Donaghey, reported on findings from a project investigating responses to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building complex (which housed garment factories) in Bangladesh on 23rd April, 2013, leaving 1129 people dead and over 2000 injured.

During her 18th March seminar, Juliane considered the experimental nature of negotiating and implementing a transnational agreement (chaired by the International Labour Organization) known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) – a program regulating the building, electrical and fire safety of premises in which 180+ multinational clothing companies do business. Growing out of talks scheduled priorto the Rana Plaza disaster between non-government organisations, global union federations and clothing brands for the 29th April, the role of these MNCs in establishing the Accord, and its ability to be rolled out in other countries, was the focus of the team’s research.

Undertaking interviews with Accord signatories in the United Kingdom and Europe concerning the negotiation stage and case studies in Bangladesh to examine its implementation, Juliane and Jimmy examined how all parties came together to problem-solve, reflect, deliberate – and bargain – for change.

Considering the bigger picture, Associate Professor Reinecke spoke of catalysts to the collapse and the subsequent Accord discussions:

“Workers had been killed in a series of other disasters leading up to Rana Plaza. In the days before [the 23rd April], large cracks were emerging in the [Rana Plaza] building which an engineer had [assessed as] OK. On the day of the disaster however, despite a bank and shops in the building remaining closed, factory workers were forced to enter the building by factory operators. An MoU was already in negotiation between the brands, the Workers’ Rights Consortium and the Clean Clothes Campaign prior to the collapse, however it had no momentum: four signatories were needed and only two had signed up. Union involvement was [also] limited.”

But with a public MoU sign up deadline only a couple of weeks away (15th May), which of the two programs on the table — the MoU/ Accord or a corporation-led corporate social responsibility (CSR) program — would prevail?As it stands, notes Juliane, not all of the brands agreed to the Accord:

“The 27 companies [with supply factories in Rana Plaza] who did not sign up instead agreed to a CSR-based agreement known as the Alliance [for Bangladesh Worker Safety].”

It, unlike the Accord, cannot enforce penalties for non-compliant signatories in their home country, nor does it commit them to a five year binding agreement to maintain purchasing from the country.

After an international open tender process, the Accord’s governing body appointed four international firms to conduct 1103 audits, during which more than 80 000 safety issues were identified. Many were serious and focussed on inadequate (or absent) certified fire doors and sprinklers. Twenty-six factories were consequently closed.

Although the Accord will expire in 2018, Associate Professor Donaghey notes rhetoric amongst the signatory brands to adopt similar models in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia. Likewise, as around 50 people are currently employed by the [Bangladesh] Accord [Foundation], Jimmy speculates that “it’s hard to imagine that they’ll shut it down.”

In response to this project, a forthcoming special issue of Human Relations journal, edited by Juliane, Jimmy, WOW Director,Adrian Wilkinson and WOW Adjunct member, Geoffrey Wood, will address the intersection of global supply chains and social relations at work.