Only a fraction of the 1,500 garment factories covered by a Bangladesh government initiative has made meaningful strides in fire, electrical and structural improvements over the past four years, a new report has revealed.
Of the 793 factories still active as of June, only 120 have conducted more than 90 percent of the necessary repairs, according to the Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC), a unit that functions under the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) of the Ministry of Labour and Employment. More than two-thirds of the facilities, 535 in all, have delivered more than 50 percent progress. Another 95 have achieved between 50 percent to 70 percent progress, and 94 between 70 percent and 80 percent of the same. Overall, the RCC’s rate of corrective measures stands at 48 percent, it said.
Established in 2017 as part of Bangladesh’s National Initiative, a safety compliance regime supported by the International Labour Organization and funded by the governments of Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the RCC was designed to manage and inspect facilities outside the purview of the Accord for Fire and Building and Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, two retailer-led remediation agreements that grew out of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex. In the ensuing years, 14 of RCC-covered factories have moved over to the Accord, which covers roughly 1,600 factories, or the Alliance (now Nirapon), which works with 600, though there is some overlap between the two. Another 630 have shut down and 100 have relocated outside Bangladesh, the RCC said.
Organizations such as the Centre for Policy Dialogue have criticized the RCC for its lack of staff and lax standards. In a report published in June, the Bangladesh-based think tank called out the “non-functional” RCC website for providing inadequate factory-level data that “portrays a lack of transparency in the inspection process.” Since RCC-covered factories work as third-party contractors for non-branded buyers or suppliers with weak or non-existent codes of conduct, “brands and buyers have no direct pressure on them to undertake remediation measures; hence factories do not have incentives to remediate their factories,” it added.
The RCC’s report acknowledged many of those challenges. The majority of the facilities under its umbrella are located in rented buildings where owners may be less than cooperative, it said. It also described a general lack of awareness about worker safety and a reluctance toward remediation. The unit plans, however, to strengthen the capacity of DIFE engineers and achieve “credibility and transparency” in remediation monitoring through the deployment of a Remediation Tracking Module. “Through this system, remediation progress for factories can be publicly accessed and monitored,” it said.
At the same time, the RCC said it will be taking “prompt action” against factories that pose an “immediate life risk through a review panel that consists of representatives from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Accord, Nirapon, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, trade unions and others.
But labor campaigners say the RCC’s remediation pace, which lags behind the Accord’s 90-plus percent completion rate, underscores the need for brands and retailers to sign the new International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which succeeded the original agreement in September. To date, it boasts 154 signatories, including Adidas, American Eagle Outfitters, Bestseller, Boohoo, H&M, Primark and Zara owner Inditex, that are legally bound to keep their supplier factories safe.
“It’s clearly important to have the brands on board,” Christina Hajagos-Clausen, director, textile and garment industry, at IndustriALL Global Union, told Sourcing Journal. “There have been attempts to remediate the rest of the factories that don’t have a brand taking responsibility, [but] without brands taking responsibility, the results are what the results are.”
Another fundamental challenge to ensuring safer working conditions? Cost. According to a report published Monday, there remains a “gap in understanding” when it comes to the specific cost-bearing activities that are required to implement labor-rights standards and create safe and compliant factory environments.
“People talk about improving standards for apparel factory workers, but there’s a cost to doing so,” said Rob Handfield, a professor of operations and supply-chain management at NC State University’s Poole College of Management and corresponding author of the study. “If we really want to improve standards, we need to nail down what those costs are and build support for paying those costs.”
In an accompanying survey of 15 auditing experts, most respondents agreed that a “baseline” of installing an onsite compliance auditor, providing awareness training and establishing a grievance mechanism for workers can go a long way to improving compliance, yet many factories are reluctant to do so because of the financial pressures they face from buyers. Indeed the ongoing pricing squeeze, researchers said, can maintain or even exacerbate poor working conditions and labor-rights violations. Future studies will drill down into what compliance might mean in terms of the cost for each finished item of apparel.
“Ultimately, all of this will inform our understanding of what needs to be done to implement changes related to responsible sourcing of apparel,” said Rejaul Hasan, first author of the paper and a former Ph.D. student at NC State University. “What do we need in terms of policy changes? What do we need from brands and investors? What needs to be done to foster support from consumers?”