Factory safety reform in Bangladesh has come only in fits and starts, and many attribute the slow crawl toward progress to a lack of a single set of inspections standards. However, the Bangladesh government just announced a major step forward in solving this costly problem.
The problem of different inspections standards is born out of a rift between the two primary inspections groups in Bangladesh. After the Rana Plaza tragedy last April, two consortia of retailers who outsource apparel production to factories in Bangladesh were separately created to supervise desperately needed reforms and finance costly factory improvements. The E.U.-led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (AFBSB) plans to inspect the approximately 1,000 factories that directly supply them with garments. There is also the U.S.-brokered Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (ABWS) which covers another 700.
These two groups have largely operated independently of one another, often acrimoniously volleying criticisms back and forth. But now a spokesperson for the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has said that both groups have agreed to accept the other’s inspection results. This was a cause of great concern for factory owners, who have argued that duplicating the need for inspections would squander both time and money gratuitously.
Lately, there have been some promising signs of cooperation between the ABWS and AFBSB. Just recently, they finally arrived at an agreement regarding the new inspection standards that will apply to all signatory members. These standards largely apply to factory building safety with particular reference to fire and electrical ordinances. As AFBSB’s website explains, the new strictures are the result of a collaborative effort that involved input from several sources: the National Tripartite Plan of Action, the Alliance for Bangladeshi Worker Safety (ABWS) and the International Labor Organization. The final product is based on the existing Bangladesh National Building Code, albeit in thoroughly revised form.
According to the report just issued by the AFBSB, the “purpose of this Standard is establish a common set of minimum requirements that provide a uniform and effective method for assessing fire and building structural safety in new and existing ready made garment factories utilized by Accord suppliers.” The wide-ranging report issues guidelines that cover fire protection construction, fire protection systems, means of egress, building materials, structural design, construction practices and safety, building services, and “human element programs,” which refers to subjects like fire drills, evacuations plans and the assignment of administrative responsibility.
The joint decision on the art of the two organizations to accept each others inspections was brokered at a recent meeting of Bangladeshi government officials, BGMEA representatives, labor leaders and officials from both the ABWS and the AFBSB. Many labor activists opposed the decision, contending that neither one of the inspections standards on its own is sufficient to guarantee adequate safety reform.
Especially because that anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster is fast approaching, Bangladesh’s government has weathered intense criticism for its halting march toward implementing desperately needed improvements. A parliamentary delegation from the E.U. arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh on March 24, one month in advance of the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse, which claimed the lives of more than 1,100 workers. This is the first visit from such a high-ranking E.U. delegation since January 5, just following the nation’s general elections. Jean Lambert, chairperson of the delegation for relations with South Asia, said, “European buyers and Bangladeshi owners should continue to fulfill their commitments under the EU-Bangladesh Global Sustainability Compact.” She continued, “When the European consumers purchase clothes, they want to be sure that these have been produced by people who are safe at work and earn a decent living.”
Despite its recalcitrant political troubles, Bangladesh continues to be a magnet for apparel suppliers. Its readymade garment exports climbed nearly 20 percent year-on-year during the first half of 2013. From July to December 2013, garment exports hit $11.93 billion, a significant improvement over the same period the previous year, which achieved $9.95. Exports of woven garments did particularly well, leaping 20.37 percent to $5.98 billion while knitwear exports increased by 19.55% to $5.95 billion. The Bangladesh government expects total garment exports this year to increase a little more than 12 percent to approximately $24 billion.