Six long years have passed since the horrific tragedy that engulfed Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013. Over 1,100 workers perished that day and the devastation sent shockwaves not just through the ready-made garment (RMG) sector but across the entire world.
Within months of the tragedy, the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 was amended with revisions on occupational health and safety and provisions to provide workers with more voice, through freedom of association and collective bargaining rights. While more is needed, workers can increasingly raise the alarm on health and safety concerns in their place of work. More and more of them need to know that they have basic rights that must be respected and protected.
The Bangladesh government also made several major commitments to overhaul the Department of Inspections for Factories and Establishments (DIFE). Positions for hundreds of new inspectors were created in 2014, and DIFE's budget has since increased from USD 900,000 to USD 4.15 million in 2018-2019.
Thousands of factories have now been inspected and many thousands of factory workers educated on fire and building safety (the critical importance of early detection, working fire alarms, and safe exit routes from all floors). Factory managers better understand that when a fire strikes, toxic smoke rapidly spreads through vertical shafts such as stairways in multi-storeyed buildings—making them unusable as escape routes, unless they are enclosed and protected.
Recent deadly fires in Dhaka have shown that lessons learned in the RMG industry must now be applied to all industries. In the event of a major fire, it is paramount that people can safely escape from a burning building—well before fire rescue services arrive. This is what the building codes such as the BNBC stipulate in their requirements for the design of all multi-storeyed buildings. Sadly, those rules and laws are being flaunted—with deadly consequences.
The country has come a long way since the Rana Plaza tragedy. On April 28, 2019, the government of Bangladesh will be celebrating its fourth annual National Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Day organised by the Ministry of Labour. Much has clearly been done. And much more needs to be done.
For over 100 years, the ILO has been committed to advancing social justice and peace, and building just societies based on principles of decent work for all. In our centenary year, the ILO stands ready to support new initiatives to build a culture of safety and health at all workplaces. These initiatives should include comprehensive risk assessments of all public buildings with a focus on adequate fire evacuation measures. Prevention, fire suppression, adequate water supply, effective firefighting, and stricter enforcement of the country's building codes need addressing.
When workplace accidents lead to loss of life and debilitating injuries, the victims and their families must be compensated. The Rana Plaza Compensation scheme was closed in 2017 after providing USD 30 million to around 5,500 claimants. Its work is now being managed by the Trust for Injured Workers Medical Care (TIWMC), which continues to provide lifelong support to those injured in the Rana Plaza factory collapse.
The ILO is now actively working with the government, employers and the workers' organisations on establishing a universal employment injury (EII) system that would include prevention, compensation and rehabilitation of any industrial accident and occupational disease in Bangladesh.
Under the proposed EII scheme, workers suffering from work-related injuries or diseases will be compensated for their loss of earnings and also receive medical care and rehabilitation services. International brands and buyers, and major development partners are keen to see this scheme become a reality.
In its response to the Rana Plaza tragedy, Bangladesh has shown that change is possible. It has shown that the nation and its RMG industry increasingly have the know-how to safeguard its workers and its citizens from industrial accidents and poor working conditions.
The lessons learned from the RMG sector, including the work conducted by initiatives such as the Alliance and the Accord, have significantly contributed to this. The Accord's work needs to continue, while the government gradually builds its own capacity and manpower—all Accord factories must be brought to acceptable safety standards.
We now know what needs to be done to address dangerous workplace hazards in Bangladesh. A good number of investments and local innovation have been introduced to mitigate these health and safety risks.
Inaction, inertia and indifference are no longer acceptable. The lives of millions of workers and members of the public cannot be put at risk any longer.
Tuomo Poutiainen is the Country Director of International Labour Organization (ILO) Bangladesh.