The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) yesterday lauded the reforms made after the Rana Plaza disaster to ensure workers' safety at garment factories in Bangladesh but said more needed to be done.
Foreign diplomats, international development partners and local rights groups also praised the development in the sector after the world's worst industrial disaster that hit the country in 2013.
On this day that year, Rana Plaza, a multi-storey building came crashing down in Savar on the outskirts of the capital, taking with it the lives of at least 1,134 people -- mostly garment workers -- and injuring several hundred others.
“Rana Plaza was a symbol of poor compliance. Now it has emerged as a symbol of the efforts towards better compliance,” KG Moazzem, additional research director of the CPD, said at a dialogue in the capital yesterday.
The private think-tank jointly organised the dialogue titled -- Post Rana Plaza Developments in Bangladesh: Towards Building a Responsible Supply Chain in the Apparel Sector -- at the Brac Centre Inn with the ILO.
At the programme, the CPD released its third report, prepared in association with 13 organisations and renowned personalities, on the disaster.
The report appreciated the financial support provided to the disaster victims by different quarters, including government agencies, donors and international buyers of Bangladeshi readymade garment products.
It said factory inspections have gradually been intensified and many new factory inspectors have been recruited.
“But a large number of building safety problems remains which is a big concern,” said the think-tank, adding that the process of registration of new trade unions was also slow.
At yesterday's dialogue, Srinivas B Reddy, country director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), claimed that the garment sector was a safer place for around four million workers.
“The immediate priority recognised in the aftermath of Rana Plaza for all export-oriented RMG factories was to undergo structural, fire and electrical safety inspections. This has been completed.”
He said the inspections required a huge effort involving a wide range of stakeholders to harmonise inspection standards and to establish follow up procedures.
“All of this work helps create a far firmer foundation upon which future actions to ensure safety in the Bangladesh garment sector and beyond can be based.
“This is a major achievement. However, the RMG factories can only be considered safe once each and every one has carried out the process of remediation to fix faults identified by the inspections.”
Also, there remains a widespread distrust of trade unions. Such negative perceptions pose barriers to the formation of new unions and for existing labour unions to operate effectively.
The trade union registration process should be a formality, carried out in accordance with objective and transparent criteria, he said.
Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the CPD, said although three years have passed after the Rana Plaza incident, it was still a part of “public and global consciousness”.
“I am happy to say that the government and industries have engaged in continuous efforts to take corrective actions.”
He also called for putting in place institutions and policies to stop the recurrence of incidents like the Rana Plaza tragedy.
The tragedy unmasks the weakness and oversight in supervision of the factories the building housed. “It has to be ensured that those responsible for the oversight and supervision [of factories] are doing their job.”
Rehman said there were severe equity distortions in the global value chain. For example, garments that are purchased from Bangladesh at $5 a piece are marketed at Wal-Mart for $25.
“Unless we have a satisfactory accounting of the determinants of the appropriation of the $20 which is swallowed up by the value chain, this is going to be a recurring and permanent problem for all those countries that are wishing to make their economic livelihood on the basis of being globally competitive in the export market.”
Labour Secretary Mikail Shipar said the Rana Plaza tragedy was a wake-up call for all stakeholders, and that the government took a number of steps afterwards.
He said a fund would be set up within a very short time where 0.03 percent of the exports earnings would be reserved for the welfare of all workers, including those in the garment sector.
With the help of brands and buyers and under the leadership of the ILO, a global trust fund has already been formed to provide the Rana Plaza victims with compensations.
More than $19 million has been raised for the fund. Until the first week of this month, $18 million was disbursed among 3,000 beneficiaries, according to the labour secretary.
Besides, the government provided all sorts of medical facilities at its own expense to more than 1,000 injured people. With the assistance of Thailand, 107 amputees also received artificial limbs.
A total amount of Tk 231 crore has already been distributed among the victims by stakeholders, including the government, garment employers and international brands and buyers.
The Netherlands Ambassador to Bangladesh Leoni Margaretha Cuelenaere said the government, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the ILO, the Accord and the Alliance (formed in response to Rana Plaza disaster), have done a fantastic job.
The Accord is a platform of 200 Europe-based retailers while Alliance is a platform of 28 North American retailers.
“Still we have a lot to do. We are not there yet. Even though there is a lot of progress, the progress is not reflected yet in the image of Bangladesh's garment sector abroad.”
Johan Frisell, ambassador of Sweden, said customers were driving the change, and the Accord and the Alliance were the expression of the brands wanting to comply with the expectation of their customers.
BGMEA Senior Vice-President Faruque Hassan said the association has zero tolerance towards workers' safety violation at factories and supports the work of the Accord. “But more needs to be done.”
Marcia Stephens Bernicat, US ambassador to Bangladesh, said the international community would like to see the Bangladesh government and the industry regulating themselves.
“But it is really a good day to think in terms of how huge the scope of the undertaking has been and remained.”
Ruling party lawmaker Israfil Alam called for a quick trial and punishment of those responsible for the Rana Plaza tragedy.
CPD Distinguished Fellow Debapriya Bhattacharya, who moderated the dialogue, said the legacy of Rana Plaza would be to create a safe workplace which would help Bangladesh build modern industries in future.