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SJ Special Report: Bangladesh One Year After Rana Plaza

With the anniversary of Rana Plaza less than one month away, the demand for searching reappraisals of Bangladesh’s progress reforming its labor conditions and addressing factory safety concerns has increased sharply. In order to paint a clearer picture of an often muddled political scene, the Sourcing Journal interviewed Zulficar Turaz, Executive Director of Synergies Sourcing Bangladesh Ltd.

After the Rana Plaza tragedy, 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 that covers another 700. Sourcing Journal asked Turaz what accounted for the hesitation on the part of so many brands and retailers to join either group. His answer was revealing:

“What company you are meaning here? If you are meaning factories, then there is nothing to sign in by the factories in Accord or Alliance. For the factories, its mandatory to allow Accord and Alliance auditors in their factory if they are working with any member of this two organization. If you are meaning retailers or buyers, then there are maybe two reasons: (a) both these organizations are represented by many labor unions and many customers do not wish to get involved with unions (b) price, they fear that maybe the price will go up if the factories become fully compliance. Due to new salary wages, Bangladesh is facing price issues with many customers, as customers doesn’t want to pay more. There are few customer who agreed to pay more, but majority is not willing to pay more.”

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According to Turaz, there really has beens some discernible progress but it would be an exaggeration to say that the situation is radically revised, or even that Bangladesh has the physical resources, including manpower, to fully implement a truly comprehensive overhaul of its factory inspection regime. We asked Turaz how factories were approaching the new requirements imposed on them by new Bangladeshi legislation.

“From the traditional compliance requirements to the Accord or Alliance standard, I can see that the building safety code is additional, and the rest of the requirements are more or less same. Many factories knows that their name is in the Accord or Alliance list, so most of them has applied to the BUET (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology) for building safety audits. As this is the highest authority in Bangladesh which can give a certificate to a organization about building safety. Many factories have received the certificate, but BUET doesn’t have huge manpower to finish all this factories, so many applications are in the queue. This will take some time, but most important is that people are aware about the safety measures.”

Now that there’s a push in other emerging manufacturing nations toward ever-greater compliance–like Cambodia, Vietnam and Haiti–it stands to reason that the experience of reform in Bangladesh will function as a template for others to duplicate. The Sourcing Journal asked Turaz if the race to improve Bangladesh’s worker conditions will ignite similar programs internationally.

“It all depends on the situation. If something like Tazreen or Rana Plaza situation arise, then every country has to go through the same process. Today’s sourcing market is very, very competitive; customers moves from one country to another for a few cents only, as long as other countries doesn’t have safety issues for workers, customers are ok. I feel that every garment producing country should take the lesson from Bangladesh tragedy and prepare themselves.”

It’s impossible to discuss the issue of labor reform in Bangladesh without addressing the state of union organization and the prospect of collective bargaining rights. Some contend that unionization is a necessary precondition for lasting reform and the only reliable fence against worker exploitation. Others argue that unions will force up wages, depriving Bangladesh of its most valuable resource: cheap labor. And further demonstrating the accumulating tension between workers and factory owners over the issue, Human Rights Watch recently issued a report that details a litany of labor abuses including the intimidation of workers with the threat of violence and murder and the rampant sexual harassment of female employees. We asked Turaz to comment on the thorny issue of unionization in Bangladesh.

“Unions are a scary thing for Bangladesh as a nation. As we have lost the complete jute industry because of unions–though it was not the only reason. Our experience is very bad about unions because unions in Bangladesh are not independent, they are always under a political umbrella, and create problems for the owner rather then helping the owner for a better working conditions to the workers. In Bangladesh owners are more happy to allow w.p.c. (worker’s participation committee) rather than unions. Many factories are having w.p.c. by election or selection. Textile and garment industry is all about production, and if production is hampered for any reason, a millionaire owner can become a street beggar within short time, and unions may threaten to stop the production and bargain. So this is the main reason owners are scared about unions.”

The mainstream press has consistently focused on the proliferation of unions in Bangladesh, neglecting to acknowledge that despite their increased number, very few workers are signing up for them, depriving them of any real bargaining power. Turaz assessed the reasons so many workers remain reluctant to join the unions.

“There are many reasons, some time owner’s don’t want workers to join the unions, they are threatening workers not to join. Sometime it’s difficult to have 30% workers support as there are many unions in same area or factory. So if you have five unions in same area or in same factory, you will never get 30% workers support. Moreover, worker’s migration is huge in Bangladesh, every factory in average facing 10-15% worker migration every month. Sometimes, unions are not represented by real worker. Some time due to political views of the union, they can’t attract the workers. So practically its very difficult to create unions in garment industry in Bangladesh.”

Despite signs of continuing evolution, Bangladesh’s complex socioeconomic circumstances make breakneck progress unrealistic. As the nation strains to meet the standards of the industrialized world, it is frustratingly restrained by its emerging-world problems. The anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy is certain to bring intense scrutiny to both Bangladesh’s reform and its failures.