Following the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013, there was widespread criticism of Bangladesh’s readymade garments (RMG) industry, mostly concerning workplace safety and workers’ rights.
The single largest garments industry disaster in history killed 1,134 people and opened up a conversation about safe working conditions, with many European and North American consumers actively criticising the cost of cheap fashion.
Less than a month later, on May 15, 2013, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh were signed. The Accord is a five-year, independent and legally-binding agreement between global brands, retailers and trade unions to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi RMG Industry.
Similarly, The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance) is a legally-binding, five-year commitment to improve safety in Bangladeshi RMG factories. The Alliance was organised in 2013 through the Bipartisan Policy Center with discussions convened and chaired by former US Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former US Senator Olympia Snowe, which mainly focuses on workers’ rights.
In the four years since the signing of the Accord and the Alliance, there have been many significant changes in the industry.
The latest data shows that approximately 81% of identified safety hazards found in Accord inspections have been reportedly fixed, while 84% remediation of highest priority non-compliance (NC) issues have been completed in factories inspected by the Alliance.
Across the 1,620 factories inspected by the Accord and 655 factories inspected by the Alliance, fewer than 2% were found to be at risk of violating workers’ rights and these factories have already been closed.
“The level of safety in Bangladesh RMG factories producing for Accord signatory companies, in general, has improved significantly,” said Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
There’s a need to have properly trained and functioning safety committees which can work in factories ‘without the fear of reprisals’
With a year left of the Accord, Rob told the Dhaka Tribune about how much they have been able to achieve.
“After the completion of all remediation given by Accord inspections, we will be able to gain a minimum life safety standard. The goal should be to reach a higher level of safety in RMG factories and to prevent backsliding into safety hazards in factories that have been repaired. Building a culture of safety and health in each Accord listed factory is an important part of making and keeping factories safe.”
He further stressed the need to have properly trained and functioning safety committees which can work in factories “without the fear of reprisals”.
However, workers’ rights are still an issue that needs more attention. The fact that Rana Plaza workers were forced back into the factory a day after cracks had appeared in the building, means the factories still need to empower their workers to the point where they can raise safety related concerns.
Even after four years of the Accord And Alliance, Bangladeshi RMG workers still earn the lowest minimum wage in Asia of $68 (Tk5,300), while wages in Vietnam are $140 a month, Pakistan $116 a month, India $137 and China $155.
In 2013, Bangladesh government formed a wage board and set Tk5,300 as minimum wage and of Tk3,000 for entry-level wage with a 5% yearly increment.
Export earnings from the apparel industry have only seen a 0.20% rise to $28.15 billion in the last fiscal year which is the lowest on record in the last one and a half decade. From FY2012-13 to FY2015-16 there has been a $6.58 billion growth in the industry.
Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed told the Dhaka Tribune that Bangladesh is now a “good example” for the RMG industry.
“There has been no such disaster after the Rana Plaza incident. The inspections found that the 2% at risk factories had already closed. The retailers’ platform is giving us credibility in our efforts in securing safety standards,” the minister said.
“After the Accord and Alliance, Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC) expires in June 2018, the Labour and Employment Ministry will monitor the factory safety issues.”
Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, the assistant executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) said that the number of trade unions has increased since Rana Plaza, with 481 registering after the disaster, but that they still need improvement in implementing labour rights.
“Workers’ rights was not a jurisdiction of the Accord and Alliance but there has been some improvements made by them in labour rights,” he said. “The issue has received recognition from stakeholders. Both the government and the RMG industry leaders are taking the issue of labour rights more seriously.
BGMEA Vice President Mahmud Hasan Khan Babu is proud of the change they have been able to affect.
“The global retailers’ platform has recently recognised our RMG industry as the safest,” he said. “The Accord on Fire and Building Safety, Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and Retailers certification on safety standards gives us credibility among the global community.
According to the Accord and Alliance, in order to keep the level of progress Bangladesh has made, the government and the industry should impose a strict monitoring system to oversee factory safety issues.
The Accord has started safety training, and workplace safety programs in approximately 850 of the near 1600 Accord listed factories.