A round-table dialogue organized by the EMK Center in partnership with Dhaka Tribune
The EMK Center, in partnership with Dhaka Tribune, recently organized a round-table dialogue to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. The dialogue, titled “Improvements in factory safety measures post-Rana Plaza tragedy,” comprised a discussion on where things have gone in the intervening six years, how much has been accomplished, and what remains to be achieved. The discussion was jointly moderated by Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan and Executive Editor Reaz Ahmad.
Moushumi Khan, CEO, Nirapon
The word Nirapon is an amalgamation of two Bangla words signifying safety and space. Now that the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has been dissolved, Nirapon is planning to take that work forward. It is a brand-led initiative, many of which are ex-Alliance brands. The Alliance completed their work in December 2018, taking five years as planned, and now Nirapon will continue the work by monitoring, sustaining mediation and ensuring safety compliance with building codes — thus continuing the work that the Alliance had begun.
On the subject of solutions, the first most fundamental rights for anyone including a factory worker is the right to life and the right to a safe working environment. The Rana Plaza tragedy made us realize that we need to build capacity, and in order to do that we need a sound process in place, a process by which we will ensure compliance.
After six years, we are in a better place than before as we have seen from the reports submitted by the Bangladesh Accord, the Alliance, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and others. Now, we need to monitor buildings and ensure that the building codes are actually being complied with.
We have done structural, electrical and fire assessments on a number of buildings, to see if they meet the national fire code and the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC). In the majority of cases, we found severe gaps in compliance. Either people didn’t know the exact requirements or they didn’t know how to comply with them. Nirapon is fully committed to bridging that gap that is caused by a lack of functional capacity, skills and compliance monitoring.
For its part, the Alliance helped remediate the factories, often suspending ones that were deemed unfit for operation. Nirapon is tasked with taking the steps that come right after. The work that was done over six years needs to be sustained and built upon; the way to do that is by maintaining electrical, structural and fire safety and building capacity within the industry. We are achieving this by having our qualified assessment firms go out there inspecting factories and building training capacity.
To prevent situations where, during an emergency, security guards are inclined to lock people in, intending to protect property, we are training guards to primarily protect lives. Nirapon will continue such training and assess its effectiveness. We also have an active helpline where workers call members of the upper management and talk about their problems. The management is able to resolve 95% of the issues raised and that is yet another way of moving forward.
At the end of the day, we in Bangladesh have to take ownership of this process. This is ultimately a governmental function, where they need to drive the process. It is what we hope for, what our country was built for, to be independent enough to serve our own needs. Until then, we need to enforce laws and hold those who break them accountable; actions should have justifiable consequences. These are the steps that need to be followed, and from Nirapon’s perspective, that is the function we are serving for brands — to have the inspection and monitoring of the laws that already exist.
Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director, ILO
Generally speaking, we must acknowledge the work that has been done to enhance safety in the last six years, but it certainly is not enough to rest on laurels in terms of industrial safety compliance in the RMG sector. Quite a lot needs to be done in many layers of the garment industry as well as other sectors, but fundamentally, we should focus on creating a culture of occupational safety and health. That is a joint responsibility of the government and the employers, although the latter bear a brunt of the responsibility of keeping workplaces and public spaces safe with regard to building fires.
Simultaneously, there’s a broader safety education at play. People need to appreciate that regardless of their professional capacity, workplaces should have a base standard and they play a vital role in maintaining those standards. We can say the work is half done and not so much is ready. The reason is not for lack of trying, but that beefing up these safety institutions require time — time to produce results given that institutions are held accountable to those results being achieved. The millions of dollars invested in the government, development partners, and the private sector need to bear fruit collectively.
From the perspective of ILO, we are at crossroads where we must be wary of complacency and press on. We need to work on the space available for the workers’ ability to express themselves freely in terms of safety and health and working conditions. Currently, that space is limited and there is considerable mistrust between workers and employers. Without getting together for workplace cooperation, social dialogue, and a broader awareness of the importance of safety, we cannot have safe working places.
On the subject of a universal employment injury system, starting with the RMG industry, a lot has been done in the attempt to come up with such a system, one that is relatively low cost and jointly organized. This needs to be a jointly organized industry so that it is based on shared values of prevention of accidents, compensation in case of accidents, and rehabilitation connected to disability.
If something like the Rana Plaza incident happens again today, there is no system to address it comprehensively. So the ILO continues to encourage the government, workers and the industry to come together and reflect on how to establish a long-term preventive, compensatory and rehabilitative system. If not universally, we should work to establish such a system incrementally so that the capacities and experiences of the Rana Plaza tragedy can be brought to bear.
By the virtue of Rana Plaza and the work that has been collectively done following the tragedy, we have learnt that only one type of investment will not maintain or increase safety; it has to be a combination of all. Moving forward, it’s crucial to have an industrial safety framework and capacity led by the government and complemented by the sector.
Nirapon, Alliance, Accord operate from a commercial space, serving the interest of particular brands which leaves out a number of other factories. This is why the government needs to step in and take the lead, to cover every factory in question. We already know what solutions need to be implemented; we just need to figure out how to scale them up to establish and maintain safety. Regarding healthy industrial relations, there is some ground left to cover, and every industry including RMG should start having more dialogues and move forward in terms of rule of law and transparency.
Vidiya Amrit Khan, Director, Desh Garments Limited
I want to start with mentioning the recent fire at FR Tower. It took the fire brigade an inordinate amount of time to reach the location, and even when they did, they were ill-equipped to handle the situation, so there were casualties. Unfortunately, though it was hot news for a week or so, eventually it died down and hardly anything came of it.
Again, the building that I’m working in has permission for 18 storeys, but it has 23 storeys and nothing is being done about it. Fire hazards are happening all over the country, and due to Rana Plaza, the garment industry was able to start changing rapidly. I say rapidly because tending to around 4,000 factories in five years is rapid. Because of all the remediation work, the Bangladesh garment industry is probably the safest in the subcontinent, and it may be a good thing that a third party was included to make this happen, since our experience shows that the government is often very slow to react to these necessities.
I believe the way much of the Alliance’s work transitioned to Nirapon is a great example that others like the Accord can follow, but in the end, it is us that needs to take the lead because they are not going to be here forever. There are multiple reasons why we are still not as effective as Cambodia, the reasons being, a different demographic, and a lack of proper decentralization. We don’t yet have the infrastructure to move out of Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet, and thus can’t grow fast enough. But the government recently declared that there would be 100 new Special Economic Zones (SEZ) all over the country, which should improve the situation.
We have been talking about living wages, but it’s quite difficult for us to do that. The primary reason is that we can barely pay the 57% increment in wages since the majority of brands haven’t increased five cents despite repeated requests for them to do so. The way buyers’ pricing strategy is set is that it is typically six times what they pay manufacturers, and then they decide on the amount of discount to be placed on the product. But then they are over ordering, which makes no sense and only pollutes the industry.
On the other hand, there is the matter of worker efficiency, where China boasts 90% while Bangladesh is at 40%, so China can get away with the prices they are paying. Consequently, with buyers not increasing prices, worker efficiency being 50% lower than that of competitors and prices getting inflated everywhere else, we are hard pressed to even pay basic wages and that is a reality. In terms of owners living a life of luxury, we have earned it, made sacrifices and given our lands, buildings and homes to banks as collateral, so we deserve it.
It’s not fair that only the garment factory owners are blamed of having undeserved wealth and it’s compounded when buyers take that negative perception and use it against us to not increase prices. The truth is, factory owners have done phenomenal things for workers, training and employing illiterate people, and if owners are not appreciated for it, our country’s bargaining power with buyers will not improve.
Lastly, the insurance payout from BGMEA needs to happen much faster than it usually does, because by the time it does happen after six months or so, the family will most likely be dead from starvation.
Nazma Akter, President, Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF)
People working in the garment industry are not sick and dying because they’re old or sickly, but because the workplace environment is, in a way, built to cause that. I represent Accord as a signatory and am also an executive committee member of the Industrial Global Union, and we are continuously pressing factories to incorporate safety measures, something the government should be doing.
I’ve noticed that building safety codes are much better adhered to by countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Ethiopia; they are also decentralizing much more efficiently than we are. These countries may not be No 1 in being green, but they have sound planning and execution in place utilizing whatever resources they have to the fullest. What is important in my opinion is that workers get to maintain a healthy life, self respect and dignity. There was a big fire outbreak in 1990 at the Saraka factory, but not much happened as a consequence.
Then in the wake of the fire of Chowdhury Apparel factory in 2000, there came a series of educational programs initiated by BGMEA and ILO. Unfortunately, these did not continue which it should have in order to have a meaningful impact. The things we have learned need to be applied and exercised over a period of time to bring about positive change.
If the US and European brands are looking for cheap labour in our country, they have a responsibility to make provisions for these workers so that workers have sufficient respect, freedom of speech, living wages, and safe working conditions. We have to change the mindset of the owners and buyers and remove any prevalent discrimination. Wages have been increased twice, and yet many are not receiving their salaries, not paid the respect they deserve, being victims to gender-based violence; consequently, there is unrest and mistrust among factory workers. All of these need improvement not out of external pressure, but voluntarily.
Furthermore, our government needs to exercise legislation properly and focus on building capacity, so factory managers are monitored and trained, and the industry becomes capable of competing with the international market. We need to improve our workers’ skills and productivity, and we need transparency within the supply chain. When a worker reaches the age of 45, she voluntarily resigns because she is no longer capable of working due to malnutrition. This is the primary cause of our productivity being at 40%.
Additionally, we have no insurance policy or functional security system in place. We have been fighting for an injury insurance scheme to no avail, and all the necessary insurance payouts are happening from the central fund. We have no day care centre for workers’ children either. Having no education, their children often turn to begging and are typically mentally underdeveloped and sickly. At the same time, we need to develop our negotiating skills with our buyers.
Accord and Alliance are blessings and we need to make the most of their assistance while they are here working with us. In order to achieve international recognition as a nation, we need to raise our voices and our standards in a unified manner and collaborate effectively. Our government has a big role to play in it. It needs to take the lead so that the entire pressure of safety development does not fall on international mechanisms only, and also to ensure that inspectors and engineers are competent enough to be dependable.
The dialogue with the government has gotten a bit one-sided, possibly because quite often politicians are also business people themselves, so there is a major gap of communication between the government and the worker representatives. When we have significantly bridged these gaps, improved our industry’s safety, sustainability and women empowerment, only then can we say that Rana Plaza ended up being a blessing in retrospect.
Wendy Werner, Country Manager, International Finance Corporation (IFC)
As a representative of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is a part of the World Bank group, we focus on the development and financing of the private sector. In the RMG sector, we have direct financing as well as an extensive work, but Bangladesh has to consider itself in the global supply chain, which is a very competitive market. The work done by Alliance, Accord and ILO has been remediation, which is an entry point into building competitiveness in the Bangladesh garment sector.
Beyond compliance, we need to improve the workers’ productivity and skills. For instance, we are working with ILO to train women for a supervisory level from an operator level. The garment industry is a very important employment generator for women, but with technological advancements happening across the country we are seeing fewer women being employed. This issue should be addressed because we want to maintain the industry’s strength focusing on sustainability, since buyers will continue to increase their expectations.
It won’t be sufficient to clean the waste water properly; brands require higher standards of environmental compliance, energy efficiency, technology and productivity. The Bangladesh garment industry has to take these into consideration and add more value to the type of apparel produced to earn a higher price from buyers. The government needs to overcome infrastructure and capacity barriers to get an edge over competing countries and become reliable sources for brands and financiers. As it turns out, there is a lot of common ground in the development needs among the various sector of Bangladesh.
Md Shafiqul Islam, Executive Director, CRP
After the work of any disaster like that of Rana Plaza comes rehabilitation, compensation and long-term medical support. Currently, some of these things are completely absent in our industry. Initially, many foreign sympathizers wanted to give the Rana Plaza amputees state of the art, computerized prosthetics and equipment. But we talked them out of it since these advanced devices will be nearly impossible for victims to maintain due to their socioeconomic conditions.
Instead, we convinced them to help build facilities to train people in prosthetics. Accidents are inevitable, and capacity for prosthetics is a better investment option in terms of broader impact and applicability. Subsequently, the ILO, the GIZ, the ICRC — everyone came together to set up the prosthetics and orthotics school in Bangladesh, while the Primark brand supported teachers separately. Currently, we are graduating prosthetic and orthotic professionals who are treating not just Rana Plaza victims, but many other traffic and workplace accident victims.
The CRP has been collaborating with Brac to treat many Rana Plaza victims, and over the course of last year alone, we have treated 143 severely injured workers. We still need to build more capacity in terms of trained professional capable of accurately assessing mental and physical trauma from workplace accidents.
Regarding compensation, the victims were paid almost a year after the tragedy, which was much too late and should have happened within a couple of months at the latest. On the topic of reintegration, the garment industry should be more inclusive, employing not only disaster victims but also disabled people as a matter of course; our laws as well as compliance requirements from buyers demands that this is done properly. The workplace itself needs a few modifications so that workers do not develop a chronic inability to work in the long run.
Firoz Alam, Technical Adviser, GIZ
When it comes to disaster management, we should adopt a proactive method instead of a reactive one. Otherwise, we would end up taking a lot of pressure from multiple directions, and achieve nothing sustainable in the end. We need to create a culture of prevention.
We have a specific chapter on safety measure in the Bangladesh Labour Act, which talks about a safety committee with a rather unique job description — every establishment is to go through proper risk assessment, their risks to be prioritized and categorized systematically, and control mechanisms to be placed to counter those risks. We need to build capacity for this safety committee, and ensure that they are not derailed from their objectives, because although international initiatives are helping a lot, they are not here for the long run.
Regarding insurance, there is currently no group insurance provision. For unknown reasons, RMG factories have been exempted from making deposits in the central fund, and the benefit of group insurance is being provided from the central fund itself.
We have a number of great things to showcase in terms of improvements made in the area of disaster management, but somehow we are not being able to do that. We had international support, but it was us who utilized that support. Despite improvements, we still need to implement a permanent mechanism so that if something like Rana Plaza happens again, we can absorb it and minimize the damage done. This is where an Employment Injury Insurance (EII) plays a crucial role. The Bangladesh government and BGMEA were committed to introduce this. Prevention, compensation and rehabilitation are strong components of the EII.
After Rana Plaza, our government made the commitment and created an action plan; No 13 on that plan was to create the EII. Unfortunately, there has been no follow up on it since. We should focus on this and work toward its completion, staying in line with what has been stipulated in the plan. If we want to have safety measures as dependable as those of Malaysia, Thailand or Cambodia, the EII is indispensable and needs to be pursued in earnest.
Ibrahim Hossain Ovi, Senior Reporter, Dhaka Tribune
Regarding the central fund, it exists for the welfare of workers, not to pay for insurance. And speaking of insurance, there are two kinds: one is the employment injury insurance, and the other is insurance in case of death. We at Dhaka Tribune have recently published stories on these insurance issues, and it is evident there that victims receive an insurance payout, the amount of which is determined by a committee as a one-time lump sum amount. This is not sufficient since often the recipients require more long-term solutions, where an insurance scheme will bear the full treatment cost in case of injury.
We have had our worker representatives trained to address fire or electrical safety incidents, but given the current ratio of workers to representatives, we need to increase the number of trained people by a lot in order to ensure quick response in case of such incidents. We also need to maintain strict monitoring during building construction to ensure that building codes are adhered to. Furthermore, we need to improve the price negotiation skills on the part of owners. Perhaps we need to start thinking outside the box and start producing more than just basic apparel goods, otherwise, it would be difficult to ask for a higher price from buyers.
Sirajul Islam Rony, President, Bangladesh National Garments Workers Employees League (BNGWEL)
Back in 1990, we had the first garment fire incident, and I have personally been involved with the workers movement for over 30 years. We were part of a huge movement in Dhaka, where the editor of Dainik Bangla wrote an extensive article on how he was seeing the largest congregation of women on the roads since the Liberation Movement. Back in those days, the owners assured us that first we needed to help build the industry and then there would be discussions about rights and safety measures. A long time passed since then, but nothing changed.
Only in exchange for a lot of lives has the industry started focusing on workers’ safety. We have been asking for justice since 1990, and often demanded that the owners of disaster-prone factories be taken into custody, but the owners, often having affiliations with politicians, remained untouched. Our factories are famous for being green, our apparel industry is ranked second in the world, but it feels as though the contribution of workers to bring this about is not acknowledged at all. We have women factory workers who are growing old and haggard so fast due to work pressure that they become unrecognizable.
They lack proper nutrition, medical treatment and the facilities that they have been promised including compensation for loss or injury. They often have severe chronic back pains, fall sick frequently and live in constant fear of getting sacked. This is the primary reason why workers are not sufficiently productive. In fact, given their dire circumstances, they are as productive as they humanly can be. They sleep huddled together, four of them in one tiny room, stand in long lines for using the bathroom or to receive food.
Back when the minimum wage was decided to be Tk5,300, the workers were quite happy thinking they could finally put their children through school. But soon given unrealistic targets and under undue pressure, they wished things would go back to the way they were. We talk about how the garment industry and factories have turned around for the better, but it does not reflect on the quality of life for the workers. At one point, our government paid Tk28 lakh as compensation, but perhaps we don’t need grand gestures like that as much as we need a broad system that monitors the needs of workers.
We need them to be able to send their children to good schools. We need to establish area-based community hospitals or something along those lines, because we see them bouncing from doctor to doctor until after enough rejection, they give up altogether. We have a safety committee, but for all the work they are putting in, they might as well be for show for the benefit of brands.
Furthermore, the central fund is making insurance payouts, and a number of owners in financial crisis are paying salaries drawing from this fund as well. The question is how much of the money from the central fund are actually being utilized properly. The core issue is that we have all the right laws in place, but they are not reflected in reality. Our factories may have become compliant at the expense of a lot of lives, but now we need to pay attention to the workers’ health, security, nutrition, education and safety. The only way to build a long-term sustainable industry is for the government, the buyers, the owners and the workers to unify under a vision of progress and take the industry forward.
Refayet Ullah Mirdha, Senior Reporter, The Daily Star
To do a quick recap of the garment industry in Bangladesh, after the Liberation War, unemployment was high and the garment industry started as an informal business. There were problems in how it was run, but since it was starting out, it didn’t attract too much attention. We were very good with our quotas from the beginning; in fact, not only did our entrepreneurs complete their quota, at one point they even completed Nepal’s quota.
But after the Rana Plaza tragedy, much discussion ensued worldwide due to our long-standing global exposure as a country. We are exporting $32 billion of garment products, and it is increasing at 10%, so it involves a growing number of buyers, retailers and brands. For them and for us, this was a huge wake-up call — one that we have been responding to with a lot of thought and effort. Hopefully in the near future, through various steps, the industry will turn entirely formal which will solve a lot of its current and past problems.
Apart from that, our first challenge is the growing trend of automation in the garment industry. Many sweater exporters have introduced knitting machines for sweaters, thus eliminating the need for thousands of workers. To owners and buyers, who is knitting the apparel, whether it is man or machine, is not as important so long as the work is getting done at low cost. So we need to think of a policy in this regard, since we cannot afford to have thousands of workers lose jobs overnight.
Our second challenge is the buyers’ price, which won’t increase overnight either. This is a mass production industry, which means competition is stiff and buyers can’t increase prices and maintain their profit margins simultaneously.
The third challenge is a complete lack of healthy industrial relations between owners and workers. At this point, it’s crucial to have scope for social dialogue or a trade union to maintain healthy industrial relations among workers, owners and the government. If we had some form of union in place prior to the Rana Plaza incident, perhaps no one could have forced workers to enter a factory where cracks had been spotted. Taking all these into consideration, we need to rethink our business model and adapt accordingly.
George Faller, Chief Technical Adviser, ILO
We have been talking about remedial actions, which means we are working to fix something that hasn’t been working properly. To that end, after a disaster like Rana Plaza, there are two aspects to remedy: one is response, and the other is development. We have had all our focus on the response aspect of things, and it is high time we started focusing on the development side.
The FR Tower fire is an example of this, where all the emphasis was on rescuing the people from the burning floors using the fire brigade trucks. However, if the code had been applied and enforced, all the people would safely get out before the brigade got there. That is the design and development aspect of things; it’s what saves lives, whereas the fire brigade is what saves property. We need to shift our focus to how there are buildings, architects and engineers that do not comply with the code that has been in place in Bangladesh since 1993.
We need an enforcement agency that is functional, complete the exercise in the garment industry and use that information to develop the blueprint for a bigger industrial safety unit which covers every other industry. Part of that will be a one stop shop where one government agency can see the licensing from all the planning and electrical safety measures.
The RCC has been set up under the DIFE, budgets have been put in place, people have been assigned to get it operational and ILO is working to put in international consultants. The RCC is primarily a process, and though it has started off in a floundering fashion, we are trying to give it direction. We are also working to make these processes in place sufficiently transparent within and outside the government. Essentially, the ILO is working to put a process in place that will eventually merge into a proper operational government enforcement agency, and over time it can spread out beyond the garment industry.
Taslima Akhter, President, Bangladesh Garment Sramik Sanghati
Right after the Rana Plaza tragedy, we witnessed a lot of concern and a number of promises were made by the government, owners and brands. Most of those promises have not seen fruition, so we no longer need promises, rhetorics or donations; we need a big change that will significantly improve the lives of workers.
We need changes in building codes and we need a fully functional national committee that can prevent disasters like Rana Plaza. We need improvements that allow factory people to address situations in case a disaster does take place, unlike the national action committee which was not entirely active soon after the Rana Plaza incident. Safety improvement in the garment industry is not a local issue but a global one, therefore the entire supply chain should be fully involved; otherwise, improvement cannot be ensured. We need to enact international laws like the due diligence law recently passed in France.
In developed countries, whenever there was a disaster, numerous laws were scrutinized and altered which largely benefited the workers. This can only happen in our country when there is a big enough workers’ movement unified and determined to bring about change. Therefore, we need to focus on developing this movement and bring all the local and international stakeholders of the garment industry together to make leaps in improving workers’ safety.