RMG: Workers' safety paramount
THE victims of Rana Plaza tragedy need immediate support, both material and moral. But this will not suffice to prevent similar incidents in future. Lot more needs to be done to make RMG factories safe. Following every tragic incident, we failed to carry out even the immediate and short-term imperatives, let alone the long-term actions. We fail to respond to the needs of endangered human lives, or to understand the importance of safe workplace.
What has been done during the blast one year was mostly to compensate the workers and their families. The process of quantification of victims' losses reveals how our society distinguishes between the rich and the poor -- the white collar and the blue collar workers. Putting this moral issue aside, the whole compensation process has been slow, inefficient and inadequate. The pertinent question is whether we should take measures now so that overall environment at the workplace improves or wait until another Rana Plaza tragedy occurs. The real homage to the victims of the Rana Plaza will be to act now.
In the early phase of growth of the RMG sector, nobody cared about the building code and safety issues. Many garment factories were set up in residential buildings. The sector was not big enough to draw the attention of domestic and international activists, therefore, compliance with labour standards and safety issues was not of paramount importance to the entrepreneurs at that time.
The Industrial Building Code 2006 was approved following the collapse of Spectrum garments building in 2005. Initiatives were undertaken to develop a separate industrial cluster in Munshigonj to relocate the factories operating in unsafe buildings. But no progress has been made in this regard so far.
The sufferings of RMG workers make news only when they lead to deaths, either through fire or collapse of the building. But the fact is most RMG workers face gross violation of basic human rights every day in their workplace. Instead of considering measures to tackle this problem, the society is talking about numbers, how many died, how much to be paid to their families, how many days are required to pay them, etc.
It is time now to do the following to create a safe environment:
(i) Proper enforcement of existing law needs to be ensured. While the new labour law provides the guidelines for improvement of the overall compliance situation in RMG sector, poor enforcement holds back progress. The main reason for weak enforcement is the dearth of trained and honest inspectors. Compliance inspectors, in many cases, are lax towards the breach of law and code of conduct. Besides, they do not have magisterial power to take instantaneous punitive action against noncompliant manufacturers.
(ii) The apathy of the mid-level management towards compliance is a major problem. In absence of any perceived benefit or incentive for promoting compliance but facing tremendous pressure to meet deadlines, compliance is the last thing mid-level management care about. Punitive action against an alleged breach of code of compliance is highly unlikely as long as the breach is justified by an impending delivery deadline. The penalty for non-compliance should be imposed in monetary terms, so that the pecuniary benefits of compliance will be easily comprehensible to the owner.
(iii) There is a perception among the RMG manufacturers that they are doing more than required to meet compliance requirements, which, in turn protect the brand image of the big name buyers. Although the buyers enjoy increased revenues from compliance, only the manufacturers bear the cost. The price and compliance decisions of a buyer are not synchronised. The compliance team of a buyer forces the manufacturers to do a number of things as a precondition to place an order, the cost of which is completely disregarded by the buying team who make decision only on the basis of lowest price and quality of the product, not the quality of the factory, i.e., compliance. Therefore, the buyers need to be involved in the ongoing efforts to improve the compliance situation in RMG sector.
(iii) Many small and medium factories set up in residential buildings in the early phase of growth of the sector need to be relocated in compliant buildings. Given the financial insolvency of these factories, access to subsidised credit will also be required to facilitate this relocation. The problems associated with migration of workers with the relocation of the factories need to be taken care of, and housing must also be made readily available. The government definitely has a role to play in this regard.
The poor garment workers have paid enough due to the poor working environment. Yet many more come from the villages in flock to work in this sector as they have no other place to go for work. Poverty has captivated them, but we have a responsibility to free them from the shackle of poor working condition. The best tribute to the victims of Rana Plaza would be to stand up at least for once to perform this responsibility.
The writer is Researcher at Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).
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