Not much done since Accord left
During the pandemic, the RMG Sustainability Council did not inspect as many factories as it should have.
When Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh closed its operations in the country in May 2020, more than 1,000 RMG units were "running behind schedule" in becoming "fully safe".
Accord handed the responsibility of making the factories structurally safe and compliant with international standards over to the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC). More than one and a half years later, the figure hasn't changed much.
At present, the process of becoming fully safe is "in progress" in 1039 factories, said Iqbal M Hussain, managing director of RSC.
The RSC was formed by brands, union leaders, and factory owners as an independent non-profit company, and a safety-monitoring body, licenced by the government to take over the Bangladesh operations of the Accord.
The Accord was signed weeks after the collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar in 2013 as a binding safety programme, and over 200 major brands, including H&M and Primark, committed that they would only source from factories undergoing remediation programmes under Accord.
About 1,700 factories were listed by Accord for the remediation programmes, which worked to make them structurally safe and compliant with international standards.
However, after a long-drawn legal battle, Accord was made to leave Bangladesh in May 2020. On June 1, 2020, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) took over the Accord operations. The body, with 200 personnel, is tasked with continuing factory inspections, remediation monitoring, and other workplace programmes.
RSC and industry insiders said the hits faced by the industry due to the pandemic were largely to blame for the slow remediation process.
Meanwhile, unions, globally and nationally, have always maintained that because the RSC is not legally binding, unlike Accord, there is no compulsion on the part of the factory owners to fix the problem.
After Accord left, over 70 factories out of Accord and RSC's list of factories have still not implemented even 50 percent of the remediation measures recommended by Accord, shows the RSC website.
A handful of the factories are barely getting started with their preliminary inspection happening after the RSC took over.
Iqbal M Hussain, managing director of RSC and its chief safety officer, said 373 of the listed factories are "yet to complete the structural remediation based on an engineering assessment" and 1,241 are yet to have their fire alarm systems verified.
At the time of Accord's departure, nearly two-thirds of the listed un-remediated factories had implemented over 90 percent of the remediation measures recommended -- but even the minor work left can cause major accidents.
For example, in late January, a factory named Zaheen Knitwear Ltd in Narayanganj's Madanpur caught fire. The resulting inferno was so big that it took five hours for 13 fire-fighting units to bring the fire under control, and sixteen hours to completely douse the flames.
Zaheen was a listed factory with Accord -- meaning it was eligible for receiving orders from big brands like US Polo Association, Woolworths, Lidl and Target. It was also classified as "behind the schedule," but only had a bit of work left.
Since it was a Friday, there were no workers at Zaheen and no casualties were reported; but to put into context the kind of disaster averted -- four out of six of the factory's units were engulfed in the fire.
Among the issues left unresolved, Zaheen's fire alarm system was supposed to be replaced, and fire doors and a standpipe system was supposed to be installed.
According to RSC inspection notes, the factory was first asked to install these in 2016.
The factory was in the process of installing the standpipe system, and importing the alarm systems and fire doors but as of January this year, it was yet to be completed.
Executive Director of Zaheen Knitwear Misbahuddaza Misbah admitted that they faced delays in ensuring the necessary remediations, saying the pandemic was also to blame. "We faced delays in importing the supplies, there was a worker crisis, and then the pandemic happened."
The factory management sought until June 2022 to complete the installation. RSC documents seen by The Daily Star said it was unacceptable.
"The corrective action plan should be completed as per the RSC recommendation with immediate concern," it added.
It wasn't fixed immediately. Following the fire, Lt Col Zillur Rahman, a director of the fire service, said, "The fire safety system in the factory was inadequate. We faced difficulties in fighting the fire as the factory did not have water supply."
Similarly, a whole host of issues were reported to be resolved but were pending verification by the RSC since 2019.
"During the pandemic, the RSC did not inspect as many factories as it should have," said Kalpana Akhter, a labour rights activist, who runs Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity.
The RSC's annual report 2020-21 outlines their problem. "The RSC's operation experienced partial halt several times [June to early September 2020 and March to May 2021] due to nationwide lockdown and movement restrictions," it said.
During the reporting period, out of the targeted 100 boiler safety inspections, only 10 were completed.
To make up for the stalled activities, the number of initial inspections to onboard new factories has been doubled, the report added.
It also states that inspections are categorised according to priority, with inspections related to industrial accidents and safety concerns getting precedence, followed by the factories ready for final approval.
Meanwhile, with nearly a thousand factories to remediate, the challenge faced by the RSC is enormous.
This is further complicated by the fact that the RSC cannot legally force brands to stop buying from factories that are not making progress in remediation. The Accord agreement had this power -- but since the Bangladesh Accord has been made to leave the country, it exists as an international agreement called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment and Textile Industry. This agreement came into effect on September 1 last year.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said the International Accord cannot be applied to Bangladeshi factories, and the RSC will not adhere to it either.
When the International Accord was signed, BGMEA issued a press release stating, "Clauses and subclauses of any agreement signed outside Bangladesh, which are directly contradictory to the dictates of the laws of Bangladesh must stand as null and void and have no scope of being implemented and RSC would not be functioning beyond its mandated remit.
"The industry has zero tolerance for backsliding on matters related to safety, even while the rate of progress of certification may not be as per expectations," the BGMEA stated.