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Safety Sliding Backwards? What’s Going on With Bangladesh’s Garment Sector

Industry safety in Bangladesh’s apparel sector has reached an inflection point—and not for the better, a new study claims.

According to the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Bangladesh-based think tank, the number of worker injuries in predominantly medium and large ready-made garment factories rose by nearly 24 percent between 2019 and 2020, drawing questions about the pace of remediation in what the paper describes as the “post-Accord-Alliance period.”

“This rise in industrial accidents and regression of workplace safety are difficult to explain given that Bangladesh’s export-oriented RMG factories have made significant progress in terms of industrial safety during 2013–2018 through various initiatives undertaken as part of the National Tripartite Plan of Action,” the organization wrote, referring to the efforts of the Bangladesh government, the European-led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the North American-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety to improve workplace conditions in the South Asian country following the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex.

The study cited 2018 as its cutoff because the Accord and Alliance were meant to last only five years.

Following its expiration in 2018, the original Accord obtained a stay of execution by establishing the Transition Accord, which maintained an office in Bangladesh until June 2020. Facing pressure from garment manufacturers to abdicate in favor of a national safety watch group, the Accord decamped to Amsterdam, ceding its monitoring and inspection responsibilities to the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), a tripartite body composed of factory owners, brands and union members. On Sept. 1 the Transition Accord made way for the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, whose goal is expanding the Accord’s legal strictures to other garment-producing countries. H&M, Zara owner Inditex, Primark and Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp. are some of the 126 brands that have embraced the pact.

The Alliance’s trajectory was simpler. After its dissolution in 2018, it was replaced by Nirapon, an independent Bangladesh-based organization. After it was suspended from operating in Bangladesh, Nirapon moved its base of operations to Washington, D.C., where it continues to monitor the ongoing maintenance of 500-plus factories on behalf of its more than 50 brand members, including The North Face owner VF Corp. and Walmart.

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In 2017, another initiative reared its head, this time with the aim of identifying fire, electrical and structural problems of facilities not covered by the Accord and Alliance. Dubbed the Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC), the group was set up as a unit under the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) of the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Part of the so-called National Initiative, the RCC had powerful backing, receiving financial and technical support from organizations such as the International Labour Organization and U.K. Aid.

Still, the increase in industrial accidents in the three years since the original Accord and the Alliance, the Centre for Policy Dialogue said, casts doubts about the effectiveness of the programs that have followed in their wake. “It portrays…an incomplete journey of institutionalization, which made it difficult to achieve the ultimate objective of a sustainable RMG sector in Bangladesh,” the study said.

Between May 2018 and April 2021, a total of 46 accidents related to export-oriented garment factories, from fires to short circuits to boiler explosions, were reported, the organization said. Fires were the most common type of incident at 52 percent, followed by short circuits at 24 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the factories were members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) or the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) and inspected by the Accord, Alliance or by the RSC, which worked as part of the National Initiative during the Accord-Alliance period. The nature of accidents also changed, the Centre for Policy Dialogue said. The majority of the occurrences during the Accord-Alliance period were related to fires, yet the post-Accord-Alliance period fielded a “diversity” of fire, electrical and structural issues, including explosions from boilers and gas cylinders.

‘Not functioned as expected’

The formation of safety committees, which were required as part of the amended 2013 Bangladesh Labour Act, doesn’t appear to have helped, the study said. Some 93 percent of the affected factories had safety committees. “Overall, the institutions which are responsible for monitoring and ensuring workplace safety, have not functioned as expected,” the Centre for Policy Dialogue said. “The Covid-19 pandemic may partly be responsible for constraining the institutions to ensure factory-level safety compliances properly.”

The study blamed the negative trend on the “organizational restructurings” that occurred as the original Accord and Alliance wound down. The changeover of responsibilities, it said, has had a “significant adverse impact” on monitoring, inspection and remediation-related activities, despite the strides made by those initial agreements in fixing electrical and fire-related issues. Progress with inspection and remediation work has also been spotty, the study noted. While the pace of the RSC, following the lead of the Transition Accord, has “appeared to be positive,” with 1,179 factories achieving 93 percent remediation and 98 factories hitting 100 percent, the overall remediation headway of the RCC as of April was 27 percent.

As of this year, Nirapon has been applying a “risk assessment” strategy, requiring factories under its watch to submit their self-assessed inspection reports instead of conducting third-party inspections. “According to the discussion with the senior management officials of the Nirapon, there is no formal correspondence in place between Nirapon and government officials at present,” the study said. “Hence, a distance has been created between the two organizations, which made it difficult to undertake informed activities with the government.” Nirapon’s relationship with BGMEA and BKMEA also appeared to be “troublesome.”

Even so, it’s the RCC that gets the bulk of the Centre for Policy Dialogue’s criticism.

The organization is short-staffed, it said, and has more relaxed standards than the Accord. The RCC website is also “non-functional,” with inadequate factory-level data that “portrays a lack of transparency in the inspection process.”

More than 90 percent of RCC-inspected factories are located in rented buildings where building owners may block access to inspectors or show little interest in taking on necessary repairs.

The RCC also faces headwinds ensuring compliance since the factories work for non-branded buyers/suppliers with weak or non-existent codes of conduct. Limited funds are another roadblock. “Since most [RCC-covered] factories work as third-party contractors, brands and buyers have no direct pressure on them to undertake remediation measures; hence factories do not have incentives to remediate their factories,” the report said.

Though industrial safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry has not kept up with the standards of the Accord-Alliance period, this can still change, the Centre for Policy Dialogue said. “A major focus of the post-Accord-Alliance period should be to complete the institutionalization process of industrial safety in the RMG sector and give it a shape of sustainability,” the report said. “In this context, a two-pronged approach will be needed to address these challenges—first, strengthening the monitoring and enforcement capacity of existing organizations with maintaining transparency and accountability, and second, keeping the overall coordination of industrial safety to be set under ‘one umbrella’—DIFE.”

Specifically, the RCC needs to accelerate its work and visit every factory under its jurisdiction once every three months. It must also recruit more personnel, invest in IT professionals who can facilitate public reporting of its activities through its website, and ensure low-cost financing with flexible terms and conditions for remediation work.

The RSC, the report said, needs to prioritize 100 percent completion of its Accord-inspected factories and set a timeline accordingly. It must ensure transparency in the disclosure of data for public consumption, report to DIFE regarding its activities, and take over boiler accreditation work from the Boiler Authority. Looking ahead, the RSC should “gradually put focus on the green industry.” Nirapon, too, has its work cut out for it. The organization must “close the gap” with government agencies and private-sector organizations like the BGMEA and BKMEA, while allowing “exchanges of information” with the RSC on related activities.

The Accord, RCC and RSC did not respond to requests for comment. Nirapon said the group is working on improving safety in factories where engineering work has been completed. “We are providing occupational safety education and support to those [Corrective Action Plan]-closed factories, the spokesperson said. “The objective of this work being to improve the management of safety, training, policies and preventative maintenance in the workplace. This will allow for the development of safer working practices to help prevent accidents from happening in the first place.”