Fair progress after tragedy
Bangladesh has made significant progress in workplace safety since the Rana Plaza building collapse two years ago, as a result of broader reforms undertaken by the government and international communities, analysts and industry insiders said.
“The country needs a continuation of the momentum in improvements so that no more tragedy like the Rana Plaza incident takes place,” said Srinivas B Reddy, country director of International Labour Organisation.
The Accord, a platform of 190 retailers -- mainly European, and Alliance, another platform of 26 North American retailers and brands, have already completed preliminary inspections of 2,087 factories in September last year and found more than 98 percent of the factories safe.
Only 29 factories were closed after the inspections. “Bangladesh needs to own the workplace safety improvement as the foreign inspection agencies will leave the country after 2019,” Reddy said.
The government has also inspected 650 out of 2,000 factories, which are not members of the Accord and Alliance, under an ILO managed project to address structural, fire and electrical safety issues.
The government should strengthen the capacity of three important agencies -- the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, the Department of Fire Service and Civil Defence, and Rajuk -- to continue addressing the safety issues after the departure of the foreign agencies in 2019, he said.
The ILO has been coordinating the safety improvement efforts and disbursement of compensation after the deadliest industrial accident on this day in 2013 that claimed the lives of 1,138 workers and injured many.
Following the incident that also tarnished the image of the country's apparel sector, the US government in June the same year suspended a trade privilege for Bangladesh -- the generalised system of preferences (GSP). The US also gave Bangladesh 16 conditions to get back the status.
Although the GSP used to cover only 0.54 percent or $26 million of Bangladesh's total exports to the US a year, continuation of the privilege was important as other countries, where Bangladesh enjoys duty benefits under the GSP, might be influenced by the US decision.
The government also had to sign a Sustainability Compact with the EU, the main export destination for Bangladesh, in July 2013.
Bangladesh has already submitted the progress report on workplace safety to United States Trade Representative (USTR), the chief trade negotiator for the US, twice to regain the status. Bangladesh expects it will regain the status once the trade privilege is re-launched as the USTR has suspended the GSP programme for all beneficiary countries since July 31, 2013.
Wajed Ali Khan, general secretary to Bangladesh Trade Union Centre, suggested garment factories should not be established in multi-storied buildings as workers are unable to escape during any disaster, especially fire.
He lauded the owners' initiatives in relocating factories from Dhaka to other places and housing the factories in purpose-made buildings. To meet retailers' requirements, the construction of green factories and purpose-made buildings is also on the rise, he said.
Currently, 60 percent of the factories are housed in purpose-made buildings and 40 percent in shared and converted buildings, though the situation was the opposite before the accident, according to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
“Inspecting garment factories and undertaking necessary modifications under the private initiatives of Accord, Alliance and NTPA (National Tripartite Plan of Action) with the support of the ILO is a unique method even in the context of the global apparel value chain,” Khandker Golam Moazzem, additional director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said in his latest research paper.
Bangladesh's performance till date in regard to the implementation of various activities related to the USTR action plan has been quite impressive, Moazzem said in his paper released on Tuesday.
“The USTR should take the recent developments positively and should consider reinstatement of the GSP facility for Bangladeshi products in the US market in the near future if Bangladesh outdoes the present rate of achievements in terms of implementation of reforms,” he said.
He, however, said delayed cabinet approval to the rules of the amended labour law and harassment of trade union leaders are some areas where the government should focus on.
“Of course, Bangladesh will regain the GSP status once it is re-launched as we have already fulfilled all the conditions perfectly,” said Hedayetullah Al Mamoon, senior secretary to the commerce ministry.
“We have amended the labour law within a short time and we have done everything to be a high-level compliant country in the world,” Mamoon said.
“Our factories are compliant now as we have taken a lot of positive steps for workplace safety.”
Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, assistant executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, also said a lot of improvement has taken place in the sector.
“Now the time has come to make the improvement sustainable,” Ahmed said.
A total of 20,724 workers have lost their jobs for the rigorous inspections; they should be reemployed through a joint collaboration by the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, inspection agencies and factory owners.
A major change in the sector has been witnessed after the Rana Plaza incident for the positive steps taken by the government and factory owners, said Sirajul Islam Rony, a member of the minimum wage board for garment workers.
Retailers do not want to place work orders in factories housed in shared and converted buildings, and as a result, owners are shifting factories to purpose-made structures, he added.
The government has also recruited more than 200 new factory inspectors, which is also a major step for the sector, he said. The registration of more than 300 new trade unions within one and a half years is like magic, he added.
The government has allowed registration of new trade unions with an amendment to the labour law in July 2013; the amendment was also a pre-requisite to regain the GSP.
The government also launched a hotline for workers and a publicly accessible database of garment factories, as per a requirement of the USTR.