April 24, 2013 is perhaps the darkest day in the history of our nation’s industrialization -- certainly for our readymade garments sector.
This is the day when the infamous Rana Plaza collapse occurred, an incident that caused over a thousand lives to be extinguished in the blink of an eye, and left even more lives permanently scarred both inside and outside in its wake.
So, looking back five years after the tragic incident, I think it is worth taking a look at exactly how the industry has improved, and what precautions have been taken in order to avoid a tragedy of this magnitude further down the road.
Following the two tragic incidents, each and every stakeholder in the Bangladesh apparel industry realized the need for workplace safety as a fundamental pillar of the industry. Three initiatives -- the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (Accord), the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance), and the National Action Plan (NAP) -- were launched to bring about desired changes.
Initially, there was a lot of confusion and apprehension within the industry regarding the massive inspection move launched under the three safety platforms, since the sector had never experienced an incident of this magnitude before. Eventually, both Accord and Alliance successfully completed their inspection operations in all of our RMG factories.
To date, Accord and Alliance have been able to remedy the workplace situation in around 83% of our factories. This process is being carried out in a transparent way through a multi-stakeholder approach -- so much so that the inspection reports, with relevant status updates, are available in a publicly accessible website.
Over the past few years, the government itself has taken a number of steps in order to alleviate further tragedies. The amendment of labour laws, passing of labour rules, mandatory formation of a safety committee, and the elected participation committee at all export-oriented garment factories, are only a few of these measures.
In order to sustain this progress, the engagement capacity of all government agencies involved has been enhanced, while factory inspection mechanisms have been given more emphasis. The chief inspector of factories and establishments was upgraded to the directorate of inspection for factories and establishment (DIFE).
To date, Accord and Alliance have been able to remedy the workplace situation in around 83% of our factories. This process is being carried out in a transparent way through a multi-stakeholder approach
An additional 200 labour inspectors were recruited by the government to oversee workplace safety and worker rights. The number of female inspectors was also increased to 20% of the total in a bid to better interact with the predominantly female RMG workforce. The newly recruited labour inspectors were trained in labour laws, fire and building safety, as well as inspection techniques.
Another example of our RMG industry’s adaptability are the numerous strides we have made in sustainability -- Bangladesh is now one of the leaders in green industrialization in the world. We have 68 green garment factories, as of today, certified by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), of which 14 have been rated platinum.
Moreover, seven of the world’s top 10 LEED certified factories by the USGBC are located in Bangladesh, while 280 more factories are in the pipeline in attaining the USGBC certification.
Most importantly, a silent but notable change has taken place within the RMG industry -- which is the way that industry heads are now thinking about workplace safety, standards, and regulations. They are now making large investments into safety and sustainability, as they have realized that ensuring workplace safety is a prerequisite in sustaining the business, vis-a-vis the industry.
It is heartening to see the Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA) and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association (BGMEA) recently signing an MoU to lease out 500 acres of land at the Mirsarai economic zone in Chittagong for developing a garment industrial park equipped with modern, state-of-the-art industrial facilities.
However, we cannot let visible progress make us complacent.
A number of challenges still linger. Though there has been tangible progress in terms of remediation in factories under Accord and Alliance, the exact speed of operations in the factories under the national initiative is way too slow at this juncture.
To that end, the government has established the Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC), with support from the ILO, to function as a self-sufficient national authority to monitor and maintain safety standards in the apparel industry. But the modus operandi and capacity of the RCC is still unclear, which has resulted in the extended stay of Accord and Alliance beyond their stipulated period. We should bear in mind that keeping workers safe is also the responsibility of the government of Bangladesh, as monitoring safety is a continuous process.
So, it is neither feasible nor possible for Accord and Alliance to oversee the safety issue in Bangladesh’s apparel industry for an indefinite period of time. Though there have been significant improvements in the areas of safety and sustainability, much work still need to be done for ensuring better rights of our workers. Rana Plaza was a wake-up call, and the ultimate lesson in how proper, sustainable industrialization does not stop at the check-out counter.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Founder & CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and Bangladesh Denim Expo. He is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He can be reached at [email protected]