On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Rana Plaza collapse, the roundtable was organised to discuss the current state of the RMG industry, workers' rights and livelihood in light of the SDGs, factory safety, compensation, rehabilitation, medical treatment, and arbitration of industrial disputes. With the participation of different stakeholders, this discussion seeks to address issues related to prevention of factory accidents; recommendations in light of international and national capacities gained so far; structural initiatives of management and humanitarian assistance in cases of industrial accidents; medical treatment and rehabilitation of injured workers; compensation structures in place; and industrial relations between employers and workers.
Shirin Akhter MP, Vice Chairperson, BILS
The whole world was watching us when Rana Plaza collapse happened. And everyone—the businesses, retailers, manufacturers, government, workers rights groups, etc.—attempted to look at where we went wrong, why this had happened, and how to prevent something like this from ever happening again. This is what we are going to discuss today.
Nazrul Islam Khan, Secretary General, BILS
The compensation we were able to secure with international support did not take any meaningful permanent form in our policies or initiatives. Workers were killed in factory fires even after this huge disaster. They did not get compensation as Rana Plaza victims but according to national laws and some financial support from Sramik Kalyan Foundation. This means that the lessons of Rana Plaza have been temporary and considered as only the lessons of an “isolated” incident. There hasn't been any national initiative in this regard. Right after Rana Plaza, the number of registration of trade unions spiked but it has come down since then. Rana Plaza has not led us to recognise workers' rights or make progress in implementation of national laws.
Dr Hameeda Hossain, Convener, Sramik Nirapotta Forum-SNF
Why did Rana Plaza happen? Any report would say that there were cracks in the building, etc. But I think we should discuss it from the perspective that this is a global chain. If we keep thinking about profits and not wages, such disasters may recur. There's a lot of pressure on companies to meet the target due to this global chain. The other factor is corruption. When there was permission for a seven-storied building, why was it nine-storied? Because Sohel Rana was apparently a “party activist”. The third factor is lack of good governance. To acquire permission for constructing a building or setting up a factory, there's confusion as to whether one should go to Rajuk, local government, or the chairman. This is not clear.
After Rana Plaza, the High Court, in a suo moto rule, directed formation of expert committees for assessing compensation claims. The committees at the end of 2017 gave their report but the High Court did not make any decisions yet.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, Associate Editor, The Daily Star
I believe that this particular date, April 24, should be observed not only to remember and discuss the lessons of Rana Plaza and the way forward, but also the broader issues on the labour front. I have spoken to some of the victims of Rana Plaza who are living a miserable life. We have to address their needs. The media can play an important role in bringing a lot of these issues to the fore. Observations of such days shouldn't be ritualistic, and we should be proactive, not reactive.
Mohammed Nasir, Vice President (Finance), BGMEA
When Rana Plaza happened, there were human chains in countries around the world demanding consumers to not buy clothes made in Bangladesh. But today, we can say that we have come very far. Thanks to our immense growth in RMG and inspection of factories under Accord, Alliance and National Action Plan, buyers have regained their faith. It was thought that 50 percent of our factories were vulnerable but after inspection only 39 factories were found to be vulnerable and they were shut down. Today, Bangladesh's RMG sector is a role model. What matters is that we are willing to come forward to solve problems.
Gagan Rajbhandari, Officer in Charge, ILO Country Office for Bangladesh
Garment factories are now safer while the regulatory capacity of the government in this regard has also been enhanced. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments has been transformed and it now has more budget, staff and capacity to carry out its regulatory mandate of overseeing compliance not only in the garment industry but in all sectors. A culture of occupational safety and health is slowly being built. Millions of workers have been given basic training on workplace safety and have far better knowledge on how to prevent accidents and what to do if one should occur.
There is still some way to go to complete remediation of all RMG factories. In addition, the Remediation Coordination Cell, which will eventually become an industrial safety agency, still needs to get up to full speed. More also needs to be done to empower women in the workplace. Women still make up the majority of the RMG sector's workforce, yet are largely consigned to the lowest level of jobs. We must support women to play a more active role in the trade unions, safety and participation committees, and to make them jump to supervisors' roles.
Mikail Shipar, Former Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment
We should amend the existing labour act to cover the complete security issue of workers. We need safety assessment of the plastic and chemical industries along with the garment sector. Workplace security standard in Bangladesh is still weak compared with the global standard. There is a real fear that security monitoring will collapse once the foreign inspection agencies, the Accord and the Alliance, leave Bangladesh. So we need to give an institutional shape to our experience of the last five years. We should provide compensation to the victims as per the standards of the International Labour Organisation and introduce accidental insurance.
Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Director, Research, CPD
One thing to address is the right to form trade unions from both within and outside EPZs. We are hopeful since there is now a directorate in DIFE, and the Department of Labour has been upgraded. Even Fire Service and Civil Defence has improved in terms of logistics and human resource.
It should be noted that there are many factories (around 47 percent) outside of the purview of Accord and Alliance which are also involved in RMG exports. We would urge the BGMEA and BKMEA that the non-members are brought under membership and to construct an institutional framework so that non-members are not allowed to be involved with exports. There is still $2 million in the Rana Plaza Trust Fund and this can be used to help the Rana Plaza victims who were injured and need help with treatment. BGMEA should be more proactive. One positive aspect is the 5 percent yearly increase in wages but even that is not a lot, especially since living costs have risen a lot. We hope that the new wage board will address this issue. The Remediation Coordination Cell should be made operational. The public-private partnership model alongside RCC should be pursued.
Razequzzaman Ratan, General Secretary, Socialist Labour Front
Such incidents are commonplace but we don't notice them unless they are on a massive scale. Rana Plaza was a case of systematic murder. The infrastructure itself was the cause of the building collapse. What is the excuse of the governmental institutions for the lack of proper monitoring? The compensation in the labour law is still Tk 1 lakh. Section 309 says that if the negligence of authorities results in workers' death, the punishment is four years' imprisonment and Tk 1 lakh fine. This is not harsh enough a punishment. Our labour law talks about compensation but not rehabilitation.
Without sustainable work, how can there be sustainable development? If wages cannot give one the security of a sustainable livelihood, what is the point? We have not yet been able to establish structural rehabilitation in the face of accidents that occur due to structural failures.
Roy Ramesh Chandra, Advisory Council Member, BILS
The basic reason for Rana Plaza collapse is the absence of rule of law and collective voice of workers and weakness of the implementation of the existing law. These are the areas that need to be addressed. Only talking about garment sector isn't enough. Workplace safety in general should be discussed. When it comes to trade union registration, at least 30 percent of the workers in a factory should be included—there's a weakness in the labour law. This should be addressed.
Brig Gen Ali Ahammed Khan, psc, Director General, Fire Service and Civil Defence Directorate
We have to address all industries. Even today, BNBC is not being followed, and many chemical factories are without supervision by any regulatory body. Many factories don't have training drills. We need a policy for this. I would recommend satellite type fire station. We also need a fire safety plan which would include how to improve remediation measures and address the gaps.
Abdul Gani Mollah, Director, The National Institute of Traumatology & Orthopaedic Rehabilitation
Thanks to the honourable PM, Pongu Hospital grew from a 500 to 1000-bed hospital after Rana Plaza. If Rana Plaza victims who have a card come to us, we will give them treatment for free. Some very good recommendations have come out of this discussion and we should implement these.
Md. Shafiqul Islam, Executive Director Center for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP)
We helped 518 Rana Plaza victims with physical treatment and rehabilitation, out of whom 338 were rehabilitated at their villages by spending almost Tk 1 lakh. In 2016, we did a survey to see the state of their physical and mental well-being. 49.86 percent had barriers in physical health for community participation and there were equal barriers to mental health. There is still a lack of psycho-social counseling and mental health support according to our survey. Doctors need training on assessment on the functional ability from the medical and psycho-social point of view.
Dr Manzur Kadir Ahmed, Coordinator, Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK)
BRAC and CRP are working with those who have disability above 9 percent. The treatment they are now receiving is on a piecemeal basis. There should be a government institution where there will be combined facilities for treatment with psychological support. Now patients come several times a year to camps. The problem is that many of them have to end up staying for 2-3 days to complete treatment. The trust fund that we have doesn't allow for these patients to stay longer.
Mesbahuddin Ahmed, Member, BILS Advisory Council
An agreement was signed between workers, employers and the government but I am not sure if there has been an evaluation since regarding how much work has been done. How can there be social dialogue if proper trade unions cannot be formed? Even other sectors don't have sufficient trade union rights.
Dr Wajedul Islam Khan, Joint Secretary General, BILS
Of 4,000 factories, there are only 601 trade unions. Who knows how many of them are actually active? More leaders of the civil society should have come forward. Above all, we need to change our mindset. Remediation of factories shouldn't be the end. There should be a follow-up.
Towhidur Rahman, Secretary General, IndustriALL Bangladesh Council
Except for Sohel Rana, everyone else is roaming free. When it comes to labour rights, we are far behind. Working hours are very long and are dictated by the employer alone. Sub-contracting firms are not granting employees their earned leave and instead delaying paying wages to employees for missed days. Some factories are giving new IDs to employees every year—they are not giving continuation to employees—so that five years' benefits don't have to be given which is stipulated in the labour law. There are still many issues with wages and overtime.
Shamsuzzaman Bhuiyan, Inspector General, Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, Ministry of Labour and Employment
The buildings that are constructed under the government have a supervision mechanism. But buildings constructed under private sector do not have a supervision mechanism. DIFE's work begins after the construction of the building; we need a supervisory system before the building is built. Employers' negligence is also a big issue. DIFE has under its supervision 805 factories, out of which employers of 230 factories didn't even start their work. We sent letters to BGMEA and BKMEA but we haven't been able to get their attention.
We plan to introduce an industrial safety unit under RCC.
One thing we should note is that boiler blasts happened even in factories under Accord and Alliance. Boiler inspection doesn't fall under DIFE either. Those who operate boilers don't have any formal training.
Brig Gen (Retd.) Abu Naim Md Shahidullah, Former Director General of Fire Service and Civil Defence
Just like Rana Plaza, many buildings will collapse in the event of an earthquake. I am talking about earthquakes because I want to talk about preparedness. There was a lack of unified command during Rana Plaza. What we need is an “incident command system.” There is also a lack of special equipment in the event of a building collapse for which recommendations have been given to the home ministry and disaster management and relief ministry. Even one sixth of our goal to procure 62,000 volunteers hasn't been met. We should also look into factory fire insurance like some other countries. Cluster base mini fire station should be established. Owners can buy fire fighting vehicles at a cost lower than the cost of their luxury cars.
Rob Wayss, Executive Director, Accord, Executive Director & Acting Chief Safety Inspector
2018 transition Accord expressly comments on our support for the establishment of a compensation fund and our commitment to work with the National Plan of Action and social partners in the development of such funds. Once you inspect the factories, and identify the safety hazards and fix them, it is important that you have a structure in place at the factory level to ensure that the corrected safety hazards remain corrected. Safety committee training should take place at the factory during the workday. You can train regular managers and workers on basic safety matters. All Employee Meetings are also an important component of safety approach in the factory.
Naimul Ahsan Jewel, Joint Coordinator, Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SKOP)
We have observed that without proper trade unions, such disasters will continue to happen. Rana Plaza workers had repeatedly refused to work in that building but they were forced into the factory. We should make use of our labour law and form more trade unions. After Rana Plaza, buyers came forward and Accord and Alliance brought many factories under compliance. We are thankful for this. It is the responsibility of the government and employers to ensure that garment workers have social security along with fair wages.
Abdul Kader Howlader, Secretary, BILS
Trade Union must come forward to ensure safe workplace. Though it is the main responsibility of Trade Union to support the workers, now-a-days the civil society is responding with these issues.
Among others, Shah Mohd. Abu Zafar, Member, Advisory Council, BILS; Rowshan Jahan Sathi, Secretary, BILS; Md. Nurul Amin, General Secretary, Jatiya Sramik Jote; Tina Blohm, Residential Representative, FES Bangladesh Office; Farhtheeba Rahat Khan, Team Leader, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation; Noushin Safinaz Shah, National Programme Officer, ILO; Rafiqul Islam Pathik, Vice President, Bangladesh Sramik Federation; Shahid Ullah, Consultant, FNV; Md. Abdul Wahed, Member, Executive Council, BILS and Md. Mahfuzur Rahman Bhuiyan, DIG, DIFE, were present at the roundtable. BILS Vice Chairperson Shirin Akhter MP, chaired the session, while BILS Executive Director Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed moderated the session.