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Workplace safety in RMG factories: Is it sustainable?

  • Published at 01:01 am April 24th, 2019
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File photo of Female workers seen working at RMG factory in Bangladesh Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

Although there has been improvement following the Rana Plaza collapse, stakeholders in the RMG sector say proper mechanism is required at national level to maintain high safety standards

When it comes to workplace safety, Marufa Akter, a veteran worker in the RMG sector, is quite happy with how things have been improving.

“I do feel safer now,” Marufa, an operator at MBM Garments Ltd - an export-oriented apparel manufacturer located in Mirpur, Dhaka, told Dhaka Tribune. “My factory is more secure than before as the owner has placed several safety measures, such as fire exits.” 

In the aftermath of the tragic Rana Plaza collapse, she said she felt empowered as she was able to voice her concerns regarding safety issues, now that there are authorities who would listen.

However, Marufa is also concerned whether the improvement that has been achieved and that has been promised regarding workplace safety will be sustainable in the long run.

Marufa’s mixed feelings regarding workplace safety are shared by her colleagues as well as stakeholders in the RMG sector of Bangladesh, which has gone through an impressive overhaul to ensure workplace safety in the $30 billion industry since the Rana Plaza collapse. 

Rana Plaza, a nine-storey building in Savar, Dhaka that housed five RMG factories, collapsed on the morn of April 24, 2013, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500 others.

The incident – the worst industrial disaster in the country’s history – drew global attention to the poor safety standards in the country’s RMG factories and prompted several measures, on both national and international levels, to ensure a better workplace environment for RMG workers in Bangladesh. 

As of today, 93% percent of safety remediation has been completed in factories affiliated with the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a collaborative process to ensure workplace safety in Bangladesh’s RMG factories, which includes stakeholders from Bangladesh and US governments, apparel retailers – mostly North American, policymakers and rights organizations. 

At the same time, 428 Alliance-affiliated factories have implemented their initial Corrective Action Plans (CAPs).

As per the latest data of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, another international collaboration, 89% of initial remediation is complete: 197 factories have finished the initial remediation, while over 90% remediation is done in 996 RMG factories.

Meanwhile, the government led National Initiative (NI) has completed only 29% of the remediation works.

Stakeholders are also content with the present status of safety standards in the country's apparel sector, but strongly believe that it can only be sustained through strict monitoring. 

“Safety standards in the apparel sector are maintained far better than before. The sector is now fully compliant,” Mahmud Hasan Khan Babu, former vice president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told the Dhaka Tribune. “The Alliance has finished the safety inspection, while the Accord is nearly done with its job.”

“In the past, accidents in the RMG sector meant death, but that is no longer the case now,” said Nazma Akter, president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, an affiliated union of RMG workers. “This is because of upgraded fire, electrical and structural safety standards.”

The International Labour Organization (ILO)) also recognizes the safety improvement in the country’s RMG sector.

“The garment industry in Bangladesh has become notably safer since the Rana Plaza collapse six years ago. This has been accomplished through the combined efforts of the government, employers and workers’ organizations, the Accord and the Alliance, as well as development partners,” Tuomo Poutiainen, ILO country director in Bangladesh, told the Dhaka Tribune.

“However, to ensure safety in all workplaces, safety culture and managing occupational safety and health in practice with proper investment in awareness, safety education and management systems is needed, he added.

Both the Alliance and the Accord are at the end of their five-year commitment. Their work will be followed up by the Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC), a Ministry of Labour and Employment body.

The Accord already has handed over 100 remediated factories to the RCC for monitoring. The Alliance-affiliated factories, which have completed 93% remediation, will be monitored by the RCC as well. 

What else can be done?

What the RMG sector needs now is strict monitoring by the apparel makers, the associations and the government, so the progress made in ensuring workplace safety remains, Nazma Akter said. 

Government officials echoed Nazma’s statement as well. 

“Much has been achieved. Now the factory owners have to take the responsibility of ensuring that the workplace remains secure for the workers,” Md Shamsuzzaman Bhuiyan, former inspector general at the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE), told the Dhaka Tribune. 

In order to do so, the owners have to immediately increase the number of safety monitoring officers in fire, electrical and structural departments so they can quickly respond to situations compromising workplace safety, he added.

“Government agencies and associations linked with the apparel sector also must monitor the construction of such factories,” he further said.

Self-monitoring must also be done, since a lot of investment has been made, said Rubana Huq, president of BGMEA. 

“After the Rana Plaza incident, enough progress has been made in safety —electrical, fire and structural. It is a collaborative effort, thanks to Accord and Alliance,” she told the Dhaka Tribune. “Going forward, the sector needs a self-monitoring mechanism to ensure that the progress in safety improvement is sustainable. It is in the offing.”  

NI’s slow progress raises concerns

The National Initiative (NI), formed by Bangladesh government with ILO’s support, was also created to improve safety standards in the RMG factories. 

As per the latest data, of the 809 NI factories that the DIFE followed up on, 107 reported to have completed safety remediation.

More than 50% of remediation has been achieved in 422 factories, while 111 factories have remediated more than 80% of the compliance issues identified in CAPs.

Under NI inspection, 29% of CAPS related to structural safety, 31% related to electrical safety and 27% related to fire safety have been addressed. 

Speaking of NI’s slow progress, trade union leaders expressed concern and said it would tarnish the sector’s image if there was any incident.  

They urged the government for quicker remediation.