A new chapter begins in the country's apparel factory inspection and workplace safety, as RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), a local entity formed by the sector's apex trade body with representation from brands and trade unions, finally started its journey yesterday.
Various apparel manufacturers, international brands and retailers, global unions and their Bangladeshi affiliates established this national initiative to carry forward the significant accomplishments made on workplace safety in Bangladesh, according to a statement from the RSC.
The responsibility to monitor safety measures at the apparel factories of Bangladesh previously belonged to the Accord, a platform of more than 200 European retailers and brands formed after the Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013.
Bangladesh's apparel industry fell into an image crisis after the disaster when the eight-storey commercial building housing many garment factories collapsed due to structural faults.
It was the country's deadliest industrial accident as 1,138 garment workers lost their lives while a further 2,500 were injured.
The disaster brought light to the prevalence of abysmal working conditions and safety measures at local factories and so, many Western consumers began to shy away from Bangladeshi products.
Hundreds of consumers abroad stood outside their local malls and protested the purchase of apparels tailored at 'Bangladesh's sweat shops'.
To mitigate the situation, the retailers and brands that sourced garment products from Bangladesh formed the Accord less than a month after the Rana Plaza collapse.
The aim of the five-year legally binding agreement was to strengthen the fire, electric and structural safety measures of Bangladesh's garment sector.
The secondary objective of the Accord was to brighten the country's image in the international apparel market and strengthen ties with both buyers and suppliers.
In accordance with the agreement, the initial inspection of garment factories began in November 2013.
As of December 2018, more than 1,600 factories were inspected while thousands of recommendations were made for corrective measures.
Around 90 per cent of the Accord's corrective actions plans for remediation were completed by over 1,200 factories.
However, the Accord faced numerous complaints as certain engineers designated to make recommendations for corrective measures were said to have suggested the same plans repeatedly.
It was also found that in many cases, retailers and brands who signed the Accord were guilty of violating their own guidelines.
Eventually, a few local manufacturers challenged the Accord's legality and took the issue to court.
After hearing the case nearly a dozen times, the court issued a verdict last year, saying that the Accord would stand until May this year.
With the stipulated timeframe now complete, the Accord handed over their duties to the RSC yesterday.
The RSC will continue to conduct factory safety inspections, remediation monitoring and safety training and take complaints on working conditions.
It has a full board of 18 directors with equal representation from industry owners, brands and unions.
Initially, the RSC will conduct workplace safety programmes at more than 1,600 garment factories, which were previously covered by the Accord.
The RSC plans to eventually cover all export-oriented garment manufacturers and widen its services to encompass industrial relations, skills development and environmental standards.
"The RSC is an unprecedented national initiative. Through our collective efforts, we will ensure that Bangladesh remains one of the safest countries to source garment products from," said Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and industry representative on the RSC board of directors.
China Rahman, general secretary of the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council and trade union representative on the RSC board of directors, echoed the same.
"Together with our Bangladeshi trade union affiliates, we will help ensure safe workplaces in garment factories by addressing safety concerns. We will work to ensure that workers trust the newly established RSC," she said.
"With the establishment of the RSC, brands can continue to honour their supply chain responsibilities that they have committed to through the Accord signed with the trade unions," said Roger Hubert, former country director of H&M and its brand representative on the RSC board.
The RSC will provide assurance that workplace safety will continue to be addressed throughout out the Bangladeshi apparel supply chain, Hubert said.
The RSC also urged all the factories who reopened their doors during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to implement the necessary measures needed to stem the spread of the deadly pathogen to keep factory workers as safe as possible.