From the insiders of the RMG sector, there is an indication that both the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (hereafter the Accord) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (the Alliance) are having an impact on the garments industries of the country. From different sources (the most recently being the TIB report), it appears that the big factories are going through some changes and this is unlike the previous era where the compliance regime was somewhat voluntary (and hence could be easily flouted!) compared to today's new regimes. Since the factory owners have grown to detest these newly installed mechanisms of governance (to the extent that, out of anger perhaps, one owner of a group of factories, has recently commented that the owners should be given the option of “self governance”), we may say that these new inspection regimes are having some impact. Often these inspections require the owners to channel new funds for improvement of the workplaces. Needless to say the factory owners never enjoy such expenses!
However, one must not forget that it is the total disregard of factory owners (except for some) of issues such as work place safety and security and their apathy towards worker's life and livelihood that we've come to this situation. Just imagine how many lives could have been saved, had the workers of Rana Plaza not been forced (by the management and staff of their respective factories) to enter the building which already had cracks. Due to these same cracks, some other officers and workers from the same building were clearly instructed to stay away from work in that building. But the same didn't happen to the workers of what is often called the “global garments production.” Why? Because, this would have impacted on the shipment. It is estimated that close to 2000 workers died in the RMG factories of Bangladesh in the last two decades.
It is in the aftermath of Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza collapse, which killed 119 and 1,136 workers respectively, that we've seen the introduction of these new regimes of governance in Bangladesh. Both of these inspection regimes are said to be “independent” (my emphasis), legally binding agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready Made Garments industry. By the proponents of these mechanisms, these developments have been seen as a historic achievement. In fact an attempt to have a legally binding document which will hold the brands and retailers responsible for their shoddy practices in the global supply chain, has been a long standing demand by campaign groups like CCC (Clean Clothes Campaign) and some other global unions. The sad events of Tazreen Fashion's fire and Rana Plaza collapse expedited the process.
If we look at the objective of these institutional arrangements, it is all too apparent that these two sets of mechanisms are set to conduct “independent” inspection programmes amongst factories in Bangladesh [only from firms from where the signatory brands (the Accord) and groups of North American retailers (Alliance) source their products]. Both of these institutions have intentions to publicly disclose these inspection reports and take corrective action plans etc. They also have training programmes for what they call the workers. “empowerment” and also have plans for sustainability of the project. In structure, they have some similarities although they represent two different sets of global brands namely, the European brands in the case of the Accord and North Americans brands and retailers in the case of Alliance.
Despite its apparent success, there are two set of questions that I would like to pose in the aftermath of the Accord and Alliance: One is of course related to our position with regard to the setting up of these mechanisms of transnational governance: As citizens of Bangladesh, how do we want to look at these transnational regulatory bodies that “fix” problems in our country? Finally what are the implications for the workers in this particular sector? I think this is a very important question, which highlights the way we look at issues of citizenship. What needs to be asked is: how should such mechanisms work in Bangladesh? What kind of relations must they have with the government and its different relevant regulatory bodies?
I think that there should be some close collaboration between the transnational bodies and the government and its different regulatory bodies. This I say despite knowing fully that it is the failure of the local regulatory mechanism of the country which brought mechanisms such as the Accord/Alliance in the first place. In other words, I am trying to say that despite this being what is often called a Global Production System, we must not forget where the factory is located and where the responsibilities lie. This conceptual premise will help us remain more specific to the context (i.e. Bangladesh). After all one must not forget that these mechanisms are time bound. What will happen after five years when the mandates of these mechanisms are gone?
My second set of questions is related to the very philosophy behind the idea of the Accord/ Alliance. In the process of operationalising the Accord, one must ensure that the workers' right to jobs and their continued income cannot be compromised in the process. These mechanisms of governance have a very technocratic approach which is devoid of an understanding of the livelihood situation of the workers. Professor Rehman Sobhan in a recent speech commented that these new regimes of regulatory bodies in the garments sector of Bangladesh are “therapeutic in nature” and operations such as these don't work. I would just add to his comment by saying that a technocratic approach does not give enough attention to the day to day survival of the workers and instead, looks at the issue of workplace security from a narrow technical perspective, leaving out all other spaces where the workers are vulnerable and marginalised. I think that this is an important area where focus needs to be given. Serious inequities and hierarchical relations continue to exist in the garments factories of Bangladesh which has grave implications for health and safety of the workers in general and female workers in particular.
The different regulatory bodies of the country needs to focus on this area. An improved culture needs to be developed between the owner/management and workers and in some cases between management and workers. Some research findings show that often the management at the shop floor is more manipulative than their owners because in the day to day operations, it is the factory management which is more responsible for the running of production. The status of subcontracting factories which forms the core of the supply chain often remains beyond the preview of our discussions (a recent study lead by Sarah Labowitz titled “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh's Forgotten Apparel Workers” also confirms this observation). It is in these spaces of very poorly built factories the labour and labour conditions remain most precarious. The Accord/Alliance seems to be mostly interested to work with factories which are top suppliers of Western buyers and retailers. Thus, we must refocus our attention to the state's regulatory bodies and make sure that the work and safety conditions of these relatively less attended spaces are given adequate attention.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.