"Major stakeholders have taken many steps which I think will prove effective in medium to long term"
THE country’s garment industry witnessed broad reforms after the Rana Plaza collapse, which the industry insiders and experts noted would have a bigger positive impact on the sector in the future.
Key stakeholders including the government, various government agencies, the BGMEA, factory owners and buyers made significant progress to cope with the multi-dimensional challenges of governance and corruption that exposed the sector to unprecedented vulnerabilities.
The collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar, the worst workplace disaster in textile history, on April 24 last year turned out to be a costly eye opener.
A recent study by the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) found that several industry stakeholders took a total of 102 initiatives of varying dimensions against 54 out of 63 types of governance challenges. Of the 102 initiatives, 31 percent were implemented completely, 60 percent witnessed varying degrees of progress while 9 percent remained unaddressed.
The government amended the labour law of 2006 in July last year to allow trade unions by workers in the factories, a key indicator of workers' rights.
A new salary structure for the workers was implemented from December last year.
In addition, the administration has allowed three agencies – two international and a national – to inspect factories for ensuring workplace safety. The agencies are: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet).
The Accord, a platform of 150 retailers and brands mainly from Europe, has so far carried out inspections of 80 factories of 1626. The Alliance, a platform of 27 US-based apparel retailers and brands, inspected 247 out of 626 factories. Meanwhile, Buet has completed inspection at 247 factories out of around 2,000 factories, according to the TIB study.
The National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire, Electrical Safety and Physical Integrity in the Ready‐Made Garment Sector of Bangladesh (NAP) is the key initiative under which the government authorities and supporting organisations committed to various activities in response to the Rana Plaza incident.
The NAP is one of the notable initiatives undertaken by local and international stakeholders, part of which seeks to ensure long-term enforcement of a globally acceptable fire, electrical and structural safety standard across the garment industry that is harmonised with the standards of the foreign buyers/retailers.
International Labour Organisation (ILO) has taken upon advisory and coordinator roles to support the timely implementation of the prescribed activities and minimise duplication of efforts.
Other important steps taken to ensure workplace safety included the establishment of a task force on building and fire safety of the Cabinet Committee for the RMG sector, upgradation of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) to a directorate, the development and introduction of unified fire safety checklist to be used by all relevant government agencies, establishment of a workers’ safety hotline through the Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD), and lastly, the adoption of a National Occupational Safety and Health Policy.
"Working conditions and workers' rights issues are receiving high priority in Bangladesh; The responses by the Government, the RMG industry, and workers’ organisations to recent tragedies in Bangladesh RMG sector are cause for measured optimism," ILO Country Director Srinivas Reddy said in February.
From all these perspectives, important steps have been taken, noted Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).
"The labour act has been amended with provisions to safeguard workers' interest. Now the trade unions are getting the opportunities for registration. It has become easier. More than 100 new trade unions have been registered," he said.
"Although the law has been amended, I think that the enforcement of the law will have to be much stricter."
He noted that entrepreneurs will have to change their mindset towards trade union rights at their respective factories.
"So, I think there has to be initiatives from various angles. One is the government taking appropriate steps legal, institutional, more concrete and specific initiatives and on the other hand, the entrepreneurs in terms of enforcing the minimum wage, in terms of helping their members to support the trade unions, in terms of safeguarding the interest of both the entrepreneurs and the workers."
Speaking to The Daily Star online, Atiqul Islam, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said 146 trade unions got registration in the last one year against only 38 in the previous eight years.
"We implemented the minimum wage of Tk 5,300 from Tk 3,000 for a worker at a time when all businesses came to a halt due to political violence," he said, adding the salary has been increased by 219 percent over the last four years.
The building safety, fire safety and electrical safety inspection is being carried out. We did not see building safety inspection before. We saw occupational and health safety inspection in the other time, the BGMEA chief said.
He added the capacity of hose pipes is also being checked so that every factory itself becomes a fire system. "It’s a major improvement."
Atiqul said the process to set up all types of upgraded fire safety equipment including fire door and fire detector at factories has begun. "But it will take time. It is not possible overnight because different brands are suggesting different types of fire safety equipment. We want to solve the problem through the Accord, Alliance and National Action Plan."
He said so far no factories denied access to the Accord and Alliance for inspection. “Apart from the Accord and Alliance, ILO and Buet are also carrying out inspection at factories through the NAP."
Building safety inspection at all factories will be completed by December 30 next, he hoped.
Mustafizur emphasised on changing business model for the survival in the competitive market. "After the Rana Plaza tragedy, there was a growing recognition that business as usual will not do and there has to be significant changes in the walking of the sector. So, I think there was a growing recognition that major changes will have to be undertaken."
Mustafizur thinks there are also major concerns regarding how small and medium enterprises will adjust restructuring is taking place.
The business model which has been developed in Bangladesh till now – particularly focused on sub-contracting business and the sub-contracting model has now come under question because many of the sub-contracting factories and enterprises did not have the safety, security of workers’ rights.
"Those initiatives of further strengthening of fire safety department, more recruitment of inspectors will have to be further strengthened over the next years so that we can have an export-oriented readymade garment in Bangladesh, which is tuned to the demand of a changing global circumstances and global demands."
He is very much hopeful that this tragedy and challenge which originated from the Rana Plaza accident could be translated into a major opportunity for the country.
"We are passing through a window of opportunity and everyone is talking about China plus one. Bangladesh is very well positioned and placed to take opportunity of this growing global market for apparels but in order to do that we have to project Bangladesh as a compliant country," he observed.