Bangladesh: Steps taken in garment sector, as death toll climbs in factory disaster

The Bangladesh government has set up a panel of experts to raise the minimum wage for over 3 million garment sector workers in the aftermath of the country’s worst industrial disaster. The death toll in the Savar-Building collapse has now climbed to well above one thousand lives. Solidaridad encourages a much needed transition for the sector towards the promotion of ethical business and workplace safety.

Last week, more than two weeks after the Savar incident, Reshma Begum, a young female garment worker was found alive in the basement of the collapsed Rana Plaza. She is lucky to be alive and symbolises a moment of hope amidst a tragedy which has become one of the largest workplace accidents in the country. Recent accidents in Bangladesh have shown that the garments sector, which is one of the main contributors to the country’s economy, is facing enormous challenges.

The Savar-Building collapse cost more than 1 000 lives and left many injured, while a fire incident last year in Tazreen Garments claimed the lives of more than one hundred people. These and many similar disasters are warning signs for Bangladesh; to standardize the business environment and promote sustainable growth in this sector which provides employment for millions of poor women and men.

Civil society and human rights sector push for action

An integrated framework needs to be developed to address the social, economic and environmental inequality and to address the unequal power relations within the supply chain. A positive move has been noted from the government of Bangladesh since the tragedy, which has decided to form a new minimum wage board for the garment workers. There have been calls from the civil society organizations for the promotion of human rights in the sector.

While improvements are made in the sector, the benefits of growth are not shared equally among the actors in the supply chain. The well-being of the workers in particular is being ignored. Factory owners for example tend to put profit before the needs of workers by accepting orders beyond their capacity, knowing they are not likely to deliver on time. Lack of long-term planning by buyers creates uncertainty and contributes to the unprofessional behavior in the sector.

There are also ‘anonymous practices’ such as ‘unauthorized’ sub-contracting within the supply chain, as the media reports from the Tazreen and Savar incidents indicate. The unethical business practices create workplace stress and workers’ pay the price through working around the clock.

Impact of disaster on the garment industry

The improvement of working conditions has now become a major concern along with fair wages and labour rights. Despite these developments, there is also every possibility of less favourable trade relations or the boycott of garments made in Bangladesh. From a human rights perspective, if trade restrictions are imposed on Bangladesh garment products; this will create another disaster. Such a move will result in millions of poor women and men in the entire supply chain losing their jobs, and exacerbate negative social consequences; among these violence against women, as well as trafficking of women and girls. Solidaridad believes collective efforts are needed towards the development of more sensible entrepreneurship in the Ready-Made Garment sector. There should be a sustainable supply chain roadmap which needs to be focused on the following priorities:

  • Social protection for workers as an integral part to address all discrimination, violence and health safety challenges;
  • The development of systems and processes to assess and renovate electric wiring and other fire hazards on a regular basis;
  • Revision and transformation of the procumbent practices within the supply chains to ensure that factories have enough orders round the year to run business;
  • Promotion of social, environmental and human rights compliance within the factories with special consideration given to sexual reproductive health rights  – since the majority of workers in this sector are women;
  • The development of a mechanism, for example through Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), to monitor and audit the overall well-being  such as income security,  work conditions and physical security which includes fire and building safety; and
  • Lobbying and advocacy with brands, retailers, civil society organizations and the government of Bangladesh to set-up and implement standards for workplace safety. A governance structure should promote policy adherence and accountability of every stakeholder.

The tragic disaster have resulted in important developments in Bangladesh with a specific focus on fire and building safety. These include a National Action Plan, developed by the tripartite partners (government, employers and worker representatives) with the support of the International Labour Organization; and an Accord on Fire and Building Safety supported by unions and brands. High-level advocacy is also being planned at Parliament level (in Bangladesh), for better protection of the workers; freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Solidaridad welcomes these initiatives as important steps towards a safe and healthy work environment. It is however important to bear in mind that the sector faces many human rights challenges, which include insufficient wages and excessive working hours. We believe through a multi-stakeholder engagement a realistic action plan should be developed and enforced, to improve the entire legislative framework in the sector. The effectiveness and success of this framework will only be achieved through the level of cooperation and dedication from all stakeholders.

The article is a contribution by, Selim Reza Hasan, Solidaridad Country Manager for Bangladesh.