Crisis seen as opportunity
The word crisis when written in Chinese is composed of two characters -- one represents danger and the other represents opportunity. The narrative of the country's garment sector following the Rana Plaza collapse last year could best be summed up by it.
The catastrophe, which claimed at least 1,135 lives and injured about 2,500, drew scorn from around the world, and the sector seemed to be on the brink of a pitfall.
But, remarkably, the harrowing debris of the eight-storey building went on to spark some constructive changes, which, if seen through, will secure a shining future for the sector.
“Rana Plaza was a wake-up call for all of us,” said Kutubuddin Ahmed, chairman of Envoy Group, a leading garment group, while welcoming the reforms that have been ushered in.
“We needed to bring those reforms a lot earlier for good business in future. But, we never gave priority to the workers' welfare and safety. We always remained busy for expansion of our business,” he added.
Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said the reforms would create a positive branding for Bangladesh's garment sector. “A new window of opportunity will be opened and we must exploit them.”
First amongst the reforms was the amendment of the labour law in July – within three months of the tragic event. The highlight of the amendment is the provision that grants garment workers the full freedom of association, in a bid to give them a louder voice to reject unsafe working conditions.
Were this clause present at this time last year, the death toll and grievances would not be this staggering.
The government has registered 141 trade unions over the last one year, which was only three over the last three years.
Another notable revision in the amendment was the withdrawal of the provision that stipulated that names and addresses of trade union leaders must be given for formation of unions at factory level.
Next came the move on the part of the government to conduct thorough inspections on around 2,000 of the 5,000-odd garment factories for structural and fire safety. Then, in an unprecedented move, Western retailers joined forces to inspect another 2,300 factories.
The inspections started in November last year and so far, 900 factories have been examined by the three parties. Whilst small flaws were found in all the buildings, only 13 were deemed to be unsafe for operation.
The drive is expected to be complete by the end of the year – and would give a true picture of the state of safety in the country's garment factories.
“Yes, definitely there will be a positive impact on the sector once the inspection is complete, because the confidence of international retailers will increase further on Bangladeshi goods,” said Rob Wayss, executive director of Bangladesh operations of the Accord for Fire and Building Safety, a union of over 150 retailers mainly headquartered in Europe.
Mesbah Rabin, managing director of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the platform 27 North American retailers, reiterated the same.
“Yes, we have some challenges, but we are working for overcoming those. Once we can overcome those challenges, no community, either local or international, will ask about the image and compliance issues of the country.”
The proper implementation of the reforms will create a new window of opportunity for the garment sector, he added.
Then in December last year came the move to reboot the pay scale for garment workers, to enhance their well being. The minimum wage was set at Tk 5,300, a 77 percent increase, with the rest of the pay grades seeing proportional raises as well.
As of date, more than 65 percent of the factories have implemented the new wage structure.
The government is also working to amend the laws of the Export Processing Zones to allow demonstration by workers of factories located inside of such specialised zones to realise their demands.
For the first time, the labour and employment ministry on March 31 launched a publicly accessible database on the state of safety and compliance at each of the garment factories.
And in its latest move, the ministry has started recruiting 200 additional factory inspectors to ensure that safe working conditions and labour rights are upheld at all times.
“I agree with the reforms, but we need to implement those properly. I think implementation of all reforms will have a good impact on the sector,” said Rezwan Selim, managing director of Mirpur-based Softex Sweater Industries, which was shutdown last month after an Accord inspection team found the unit to be too hazardous.
He, however, is not bitter about the inspection drive, which has cost him $10 million in annual orders. “We have to follow the reality. Strengthening the buildings and ensuring the safety measures are the reality of garment business now.”
“We need to do more than what the Accord and Alliance demand for workplace safety. We should do reforms for our own interest, not under pressure from other countries or retailers,” said Ahmed of Envoy Group, who has been involved in the garment business for over three and a half decades now.