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The missing link

  • Published at 07:49 pm March 13th, 2014
The missing link

A garment factory collapses in the industrial district of Savar, killing and injuring countless workers. Afterwards, the authorities identify several causes of the tragedy – the factory was built on unstable ground, above a swamp; additional floors were added to the structure, without proper permits, and they were loaded with heavy generators; workers spotted the cracks in the walls, but no one listened to them. In fact, they were told to get back to work or lose their jobs.

This is the story of Rana Plaza, the deadliest garment factory accident in history. But it is also the story of Spectrum. Eight years before Rana Plaza, the Spectrum factory collapsed under virtually identical conditions, killing 68 workers. Had it not collapsed at 1am, it might have taken the lives of hundreds.  

That is one pattern of tragedy, here is another. An electrical short circuit occurs due to substandard wiring, igniting hazardous materials. Workers are trapped inside, as the fire exits are blocked or locked shut. That was the story of KTS Textiles (2006), That’s It Sportswear (2010), and Tazreen (2012) fires that killed more than 200.

The Rana Plaza tragedy focused international attention on Bangladesh and helped kick-start several important new initiatives to provide garment workers the safe, decent working conditions they deserve. Have we finally learned from the past, or are we doomed to repeat this cycle of tragedy? 

Three of the most important initiatives addressing these problems are the Accord, the Alliance, and the National Tripartite Plan of Action. The Accord, an agreement signed by 150 companies sourcing from Bangladesh, has been praised for its binding commitment to audit all its factories and fund remediation. However, its main activity to date has been to start a series of fire safety, structural safety, and electrical safety inspections, with the intention of rolling inspections out to its 1,700 supplier factories.

The Alliance, though much maligned for its weaker commitment relative to the Accord, has followed a similar course. In its six-month progress report released in January, it disclosed plans to complete inspections in all its 700 supplier factories by July.  It also plans to introduce a new hotline in 50 factories in March, reaching all its factories by 2017.

What about the approximately 2,600 factories outside Accord and Alliance? The National Tripartite Plan of Action, led by the Bangladeshi government and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has taken the responsibility for auditing them, allocating $24m for inspections. It is also taking steps to launch a new fire and building safety hotline. 

Undoubtedly, the push for more rigorous and coordinated inspections will be helpful, but will further audits and hotlines be enough to prevent further tragedies? Audits and hotlines have a 20-year record, with mixed results at best.

Consider the Tazreen fire. On December 3, 2011, almost a year before the fatal fire, it was audited by a social compliance firm, Underwriters Laboratories, on behalf of Wal-Mart. In reports salvaged from the burning factory, the auditors identified blocked fire exits, insufficient fire extinguishers, and unlabeled hazardous materials. But the auditors didn’t recommend closing the facility, and production continued. (Wal-Mart has stated that production at Tazreen was unauthorised.)

What about hotlines? Little is known about the efficacy of hotlines. What is established is that hotlines are not designed to build long-term relationships and rarely provide a channel to confirm facts on the ground with other workers. In private communications with us, hotline administrators in Bangladesh have expressed frustration. Workers don’t use hotlines, they have said, because workers don’t trust them.

What if there was a simple platform that any worker could use to quickly and anonymously share their safety concerns, knowing that they would reach key decision-makers? What if – unlike hotlines – workers trusted that platform, based on a history of interacting with it and getting results and helpful information back? At LaborVoices, we are building such a platform, and we hope that other companies will follow our lead.

Workers call LaborVoices using the mobile phones that are in their pockets. They answer short multiple-choice surveys about issues that matter to them and leave voice messages if they have urgent issues or questions. Finally, they can navigate audio sites using the keypads of their phones and access helpful information about their rights and local services.

Unlike hotlines, continuous interaction with workers helps build long-lasting relationships. If an emergency arises, a worker is more likely to report it to a trusted system versus a hotline – a system they have never used before, or worse, had a negative experience with.

In addition to building trust, continuously polling workers provides real-time visibility into critical fire and building safety risk factors. Are the fire exits unlocked at all times? Are the fire alarms active and in working condition? As long as audits are conducted once a year, they cannot answer these questions – these questions need to be asked repeatedly, week after week.

Earlier this year, we surveyed approximately 300 workers from 12 factories in Dhaka and Chittagong.  Like other recent studies, we found that there is still considerable work to do. 68% of workers in our sample indicated that they had not participated in fire safety training in the last 12 months, while nearly all workers told us that they had experienced verbal abuse or harassment on the job.

Most strikingly, workers seemed genuinely surprised that we wanted to hear from them about their own working conditions. “I have been denied lunch breaks during my work. This is the first time someone asked this type of question,” one worker told us.

Another said, “This is the first time someone has asked me if our factory’s aisles are wide enough for two people to walk side by side. Actually, there is not enough space.” Nearly a year after the Rana Plaza collapse, workers are still surprised to be included in the conversation, to learn that their voices matter.

While there is still much work ahead, there is hope for a better future for workers and the Bangladesh garment industry. In the coming months and years, we are excited to continue working with leading factory owners, brands, civil society, and governments to establish a working channel for garment workers to share their much-needed insights. We are out to prove that what is good for the worker is also good for business.