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Dhaka Tribune

11 years after Rana Plaza: From unsafe industry to green revolution

Before the Rana Plaza accident, there were only two green factories in the country. But now, Bangladesh has by far the highest number of green garment factories in the world. 

Update : 23 Apr 2024, 11:11 PM

After one of the worst industrial accidents on record, the multi-billion-dollar ready-made garment (RMG) industry took a good hard look at itself and has implemented commendable changes in the past eleven years.  

This April 24 marks the 11th anniversary of the fashion industry’s worst tragedy: the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, killing 1,138 people. The catastrophic death and injury toll was caused by a deadly mix of fashion brands ignoring dangerous factory conditions.

Most of the RMG factories were non-compliant during this time.   

Currently, Bangladesh is home to 215 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified green factories, the US Green Building Council (USGBC), and over 550 are waiting for certification. 

After implementing several changes, the RMG industry has seen a year-on-year rise in export earnings. According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), and the manufacturers, RMG exports from Bangladesh have more than tripled, from $14.6 billion in FY2010-2011 to $46.99 billion in 2022-23.

A journey towards safety

The RMG industry saw a massive shift in workplace safety in the last eleven years. 

Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, are the two bodies that have assisted factory units to transform their fire, structural and electrical safety measures.

BGMEA President SM Mannan Kochi said that the Tazreen Fashion fire (November 24, 2012) and the Rana Plaza collapse were a lesson for the country. 

“We invested crores of taka to make a factory compliant geared towards stopping further industrial accidents,” he added.

A recent McKinsey report dubbed Bangladesh’s RMG sector as a frontrunner in transparency regarding factory safety and value-chain responsibility, thanks to initiatives launched in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disasters. 

Mckinsey also highlighted the fact that more than 1,500 Bangladeshi companies are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard, which is the second highest number in any country in the world.

A recent survey report unveiled by Hong Kong-based supply chain compliance solutions provider, QIMA, ranked Bangladesh second in “Ethical Manufacturing” with a score of 7.7 only behind Taiwan which scored an 8.

BGMEA immediate past president Faruque Hassan said that now it can be said that every RMG factory is following the safety guideline, and workers are working without fear. 

“In the last couple of years, there has not been any fire or building collapse in the RMG sector, except for a few isolated incidents,” he added.

BGMEA Director Mohiuddin Rubel said that almost 100% of factories in the country have been inspected and remediated. 

Fatullah Apparels, a knitwear manufacturing factory in Narayanganj was unsafe even after the accident. But currently it’s the world’s top knitwear factory certified by the USGBC. 

The factory’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Fazlee Shamim Ehsan said: “After the Rana Plaza collapse, the global community criticized us. But now they want to know how we made this great improvement.

“After the incident, we planned to ensure factory safety and earn a reputation. We have finally achieved it.”

A green revolution  

Before the Rana Plaza accident, there were only two green factories in the country. But now, Bangladesh has by far the highest number of green garment factories in the world. 

Among 215 Leed-certified green factories, 81 are platinum, 120 are gold, 10 are silver, and four are certified factories. Moreover, nine of the top 10 Leed-certified RMG factories are located in Bangladesh, including the top two. Another 550 factories are in the pipeline.

BGMEA has been awarded the 2021 USGBC Leadership Award by USGBC for green initiatives in the local apparel industry.

Currently, the country has over 2,500 readymade garments in operation and all are following compliance guidelines, and fire and structural security issues making Bangladesh’s RMG factories one of the safest in the world. 

In 2013, Razia Begum was working at an apparel factory in Ashulia. She said fire incidents were common in RMG factories six to seven years ago and workers had to work amid fear.

She also said workers had no rights at the time while factories did not follow the labour law and the wage board. “Now the situation has changed, especially in terms of workplace safety. We feel safe at work now.”

Safety committee

The Accord and Alliance increased workers' knowledge of their safety and most garment manufacturers established a safety committee following the requirements for compliance. 

“The biggest paradigm shift since Rana Plaza has been the safety culture that has been developed through public-private partnerships in the factories,” said Mohiuddin Rubel. 

“After the tragic building collapse, the government, ILO, local and international labour federations and brands took unprecedented initiatives through the formation of National Action Plan, Accord and Alliance,” he added.

Strict and safer subcontracting guidelines 

The Rana Plaza collapse demonstrated how important the subcontracting issue was. The Ministry of Commerce has since released guidelines for managing subcontracts.

The requirements state that the factories must have an inter-bonding arrangement and be current members of the BGMEA or BKMEA.

If subcontracting is necessary, the original manufacturer will notify the buyer in advance and offer the contact information for the subcontract manufacturers, according to Mohiuddin Rubel.

The rules further stated that only compliant factories would be qualified to perform the work of subcontractors. 

Earlier, Fazlee Shamim Ehsan, vice-president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) said that the membership criteria have changed a lot since Rana Plaza and they have almost succeeded in bringing the existing members under compliance.

The guideline for new members is zero tolerance and they are not giving memberships unless it is a 100% compliant factory.

RMG Sustainability Council (RSC)

To carry forward the progress made by the unilateral safety regimes and to establish national monitoring, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) was established. It has taken over the monitoring regime as of June 1, 2020, bringing the Bangladesh RMG safety monitoring regimes under one umbrella. 

RSC is governed by an equal number of representatives from brands, manufacturers and trade unions. All policies and procedures developed by the Accord, including consensus-based decision-making and standards for all health-safety protocols, have carried over to the RSC.

Minimum Wage 

The government announced the new minimum wage for the readymade garment (RMG) workers at Tk12,500 on November 7, effective from December 1 of the last year. Of the new wages, 63% of it will be basic pay. The new minimum wage will be effective from January, with their December wages.

Moreover, Bangladesh also amended its labour law twice – in 2013 and 2018 – to safeguard workers’ rights and to ensure safety at the workplace, and another amendment on the card.

Underlying challenges 

Rights activists, brands, and foreign partners said that workers are still deprived of their rights though Bangladesh has improved workplace safety.

They said standard wages have not yet been established, there are barriers to joining trade unions, the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) labour law does not allow the formation of trade unions, and worker harassment still exists.

Rana Plaza It is considered the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history, the deadliest garment factory disaster in history, and the deadliest industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh.

Joly Talukder, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre, said that 11 years have already passed and the Rana Plaza case trial is still going on.

Even Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, got bail recently, though the apex court later stayed it, she said.

“The rest of the culprits have already got bail. Where is justice? It is alarming for us all.”

According to Blast, although 11 years have passed since the collapse, a single case out of 20 is yet to be settled.

Salauddin Swapan, a labour leader and member of IndustriAll Bangladesh Council (IBC) the factories have undergone a lot of environmental improvements since the Rana Plaza tragedy, but it is disappointing that those responsible for the incident have not been brought to justice in the last eleven years.

Moreover, in the tripartite RSC, the workers do not have bargaining power so many of their demands are not being met, he added. 

“As much as the safety committees were active during the Accord and Alliance, it has somehow faded under the RSC. Moreover, commodity prices are skyrocketing, and in this situation, not reforming the minimum wage is also a big challenge,” he added.

Another drawback is that despite many recent incidents of fires, most factories catering to the domestic market are reluctant to comply with safety regulations as eyes are fixed on the export-oriented RMG industry since the Rana Plaza incident.

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