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Bangladesh Safety Inspectors Swamped By RMG Growth

In Washington D.C., Bangladeshi government officials and representatives from trade associations faced questions from U.S. government and labor officials on Thursday. It’s the first time they’ve been held accountable within the United States for the steps they’ve taken to prevent factory fires and workplace accidents.

In the last several years, the Bangladeshi RMG sector has grown far faster than the government’s capacity to inspect factories, raising doubts about government enforcement of safety standards. Following the Tazreen Fashion’s fire, foreign governments and firms have begun to increase pressure on government and industry associations to step up enforcement.

Bangladeshi Commerce Minister Ghulam Muhammed Quader told reporters at a Conference of Indian Industry Summit that the government has fallen behind on safety monitoring, but is now carrying out fresh inceptions at all of the country’s clothing and textile units. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) is working with manufacturers and exporters to voluntarily raise fire safety standards to prevent a repeat of the devastating Tazreen Fashions fire, which has harmed the country’s reputation as a sourcing hub.

At stake are Bangladesh’s valuable U.S. trade benefits. If Bangladesh is unable to enforce its labor and safety laws, those benefits may be temporarily suspended or revoked. Apparel and footwear are not covered by those trade benefits, but it could have a negative impact on the country’s reputation and discourage buyers from looking to Bangladesh.

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The government has taken some steps to improve safety, but it hasn’t taken the big steps of increasing random inspections and handing out more fines. The country has established a fire safety hotline and a national action plan for workers rights and safety, as well as moves to allow workers in export zones the right to strike. Officials defended these moves at the meeting in Washington.

Ready Made Garment manufacturing is by far the biggest earner of foreign exchange in Bangladesh, making up at least 70% of exports. The sector generated $18 billion in 2012. Bangaldesh is the second largest exporter of apparel goods in the world, after China.

To cover the cost of new measures, the BGMEA intends to take steps to increase factory productivity, including the deployment of more advanced technology.

Growing market share in the country can be traced to rising costs in China, which has redirected foreign exchange for low-cost commodity items toward industrial zones in Dhaka and other cities.

Much like the early days of China manufacturing, growth in Bangladesh has been marred by child labor, unsafe equipment, strikes from unpaid workers, injuries, a lack of fire fighting equipment, and a lack of adequate fire exits. According to the Bangladeshi government, there were at least 780 fires between 2009 and 2012.