Bangladesh's garment industry is moving forward, aiming to reach an export target of $50 billion by 2021, when the country will celebrate its golden jubilee of Independence.
In fiscal 2013-14, the apparel industry exported goods worth $24.49 billion, the amount being 81.16 percent of the country's total export earnings.
However, let's take a moment to look back. The Rana Plaza building collapse was a tragic incident in the history of the country's garment industry. Before that, there was the Tazreen Fashions accident in 2012. These incidents remind us of how a lack of safety can take the lives of so many, and account for the loss of machinery, buildings and other assets.
However, the industry is undergoing a transformation as these incidents made all the stakeholders aware of the significance of safety issues.
As the industry is labour-intensive, thousands of families depend on the incomes of garment workers. Meanwhile, the materials used in garment factories are flammable. So, all the parties associated with the industry want to ensure safety. Sufficient safety equipment reduces the rate of accidents.
Two aspects are notable while talking about safety -- one is building and fire safety and the other is workers' safety.
At present, there are initiatives being taken from three sides. One is from the national level, which is known as the National Tripartite Plan of Action (NTPA).
The NTPA agreement on fire safety and structural integrity in the garment sector is signed by the government, employers and workers. Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) is also involved in measuring safety standards in the buildings or workplace.
The second initiative has been taken by 100 retailers, mainly European, known as 'Accord', which is working on building and fire safety.
Thirdly, there is the 'Alliance' of North American buyers that is working to ensure workers' safety.
Now the question comes, how these three parties will work on a combined platform if they have different requirements.
Thus, there are the 'minimum common standards/parameters' that have been finalised considering the three parties' requirements, which have to be followed by the factories.
The common standards will be implemented one by one in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation, Alliance, Accord, experts from Buet, and the NTPA.
By 2014, the Accord and Alliance have completed their first phase of inspection. The good news is, less than 1.5 percent of factories were found to be unsafe among all the factories inspected. Those factories have been closed down for relocation.
On the other hand, the NTPA is conducting inspection and it will continue to do so as it is a continuous process. Out of 3,500 plus factories, a total of 2,325 have been inspected by the NTPA. In their inspection, they found most factories to be safe and they need fewer corrective action plans.
Implementing the plan involving fire safety equipment is a costly one. Thus, the issue of financing is still important for the remediation process. There was strong pressure from the private sector entrepreneurs to reduce import tax on fire safety equipment.
The high import tax discourages factory owners in terms of ensuring fire safety. For example, the tax on fire extinguishers was 15.32 percent, while it was 154.74 percent on emergency lights and exit signs. But imports of fire doors, emergency exit lights and other safety equipment were announced duty-free in the last budget. So, this change will definitely accelerate the process of ensuring safety.
Another effective approach was from Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). It arranged a big gathering styled the Apparel Summit along with the Safety Expo, which were very effective in terms of future guidance. For example, questions like what steps should be taken next and what improvements and modifications are needed were answered.
At the Apparel Summit, BGMEA President Atiqul Islam mentioned that Bangladesh's present share of the global garment market is 5 percent and if the country wants to materialise its Vision 2021, it needs to grab 8 percent of the global market. He expects the industry to grab a further 3 percent of the market share with the help of enthusiastic entrepreneurs and the workforce.
To sum up, we can say that ensuring safety for the workers and workplace is a continuous process. The government, foreign stakeholders, and garment entrepreneurs are performing their duty. At the same time, we need safety awareness among the workers as well.
The writer is an assistant professor at Brac Business School, Brac University.