Bangladesh's Readymade Garments (RMG) is one of its largest export sectors, earning 82 percent of total export income and contributing 18 per cent to the country’s GDP. According to World Bank’s lead economist Sanjay Kathuria, with about four million workers, Bangladesh is now the world’s second largest apparel exporter, next to China, whereas a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report states that Bangladesh will be among the top three (along with India and Vietnam) fastest growing economies by moving up to the 28th spot among the world’s most powerful economies by 2030.
A major portion of the foreign earnings from the RMG sector comes from sales to the European Union, far ahead of the United States and Canada. Bangladesh’s strengths are in price, capacity, capability and trade regulations. But how affordable are we willing to be while trying to meet world market demand from over 4,000 factories?
A bleak precedent
In most cases, developing countries are selected as offshore and outsourcing hubs for apparel and other manufactures. In a lower cost emerging economy like Bangladesh, RMG manufacturing and export has become a lifeline for both urban and rural people, and is the first major industry in the country to provide large-scale employment opportunities (around 70 percent) for women in the manufacturing sector. About 85 percent of garment workers are rural migrants, many from poor and landless families. The RMG sector has contributed to inter-sector mobility, enabling people to move out of agriculture and enter the urban labour market. Migrant workers, mostly unskilled, are the source of Bangladesh’s main competitive advantage - its pool of labour. In comparison with other parts of the economy, workers earn well. From 2008 to 2012, Bangladesh’s per capita income was US$65 per month. A recent DFID-funded study shows that total monthly wages (including average overtime payments) in the RMG sector range from US$70 for entry-level workers to US$250 at the highest worker level. But does this amount justify the health and safety concerns that come with getting cheap labour?
The fire in the Tazreen Fashion factory in 2012 killed at least 117 people, leaving over 200 severely injured - the deadliest factory fire in the nation's history. In May 2013, a fire swept through another garment factory in Dhaka, killing at least seven people. The Rana Plaza disaster, which killed over 1,000 and left another 2,500-injured in April 2013, shook the entire nation and the global RMG market. In February 2016, another fire broke out in the Matrix Sweaters factory that employs 6,000 workers, killing at least four and avoiding further casualties because of its early hour of occurence. These incidents led to many awareness raising campaigns and policy level advocacy initiatives to shed light on what is going on inside these humongous production factories.
New horizons in safety compliance
However, in the last few years, Bangladesh’s RMG industry has undergone a remarkable change in terms of safety compliance. According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), building, fire and electrical safety inspections in over 3,700 factories have been completed under three initiatives: the buyers-led initiatives Accord and Alliance, and National Action Plan, a tripartite platform comprising the Bangladesh government, workers and employers. Besides, there has also been a notable change in the mindset of the entrepreneurs regarding safety compliance after Rana Plaza, and the pressure from international buyers and importers to comply with their safety, health and social compliance checklists have played a key role in rethinking work space safety issues. Factories are making huge investments in safety upgrades, though this has no immediate return, because they have realised that ensuring workplace safety is a prerequisite to sustain the business and keep the workforce from switching factories. In addition, crèche, first aid medicine along with on-site doctors/paramedics, timely payment, leave and benefit packages have also been introduced in most of them. Moreover, to address the global trend of going green, last year Bangladesh earned the reputation of having the top three environment-friendly garment and textile factories in the world. Till date, Bangladesh has 32 green factories that have received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certificates, and more than 100 green factories are under construction.
As this sector has great potential in helping Bangladesh become a middle-income country soon, a holistic approach to ensure safety and health at work has been felt and initiated. Importers and buyers are not only considering all the compliance issues in their sourcing factories, but support from BGMEA, BKMEA and government-led initiatives alongside private sector engagement has all come together to move towards Sustainable Development Goal 8, that provides for the promotion of “inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”
Alongside safety, manufacturers are gradually understanding the business benefits of a skilled workforce. International buyers are interested in increasing their strategic business partnerships with supplier factories while supporting initiatives that focus on social compliance issues and skills development. Sudokkho, the five-year skills and employment program funded by the British and Swiss Governments, works together with these RMG employers to develop skills training systems that lead to employment in higher valued semi-skilled or skilled jobs. Brands and international buyers that source from various compliant factories are partners in Sudokkho to setup in-factory training systems. Within the last year of the project, over 4,000 sewing machine operators have been trained.
It is evident that so much has changed; yet we all need to work together towards making this sector one of the best to represent Bangladesh in the world economy and ensure no more casualties, and with skills, quality and pride, reiterate our commitments on World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2017 today.
Paul Weijers is the Team Leader of Sudokkho programme in Bangladesh.