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Bangladesh Working to Stave Off Another Rana Plaza

An initiative to digitally map every export-oriented ready-made garment factory in Bangladesh has hit a critical milestone.

As of January, Mapped in Bangladesh, a project of the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development of Dhaka’s Brac University, has pinned down 3,630 factories employing nearly 2.8 million workers, or roughly half of the South Asian nation’s total garment-producing base. More than 2,700 of the facilities were members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) or the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters (BKMEA), two of the country’s biggest trade organizations. Of the workers who responded to census takers, 58 percent were women.

Mapped in Bangladesh, which began in 2019 and is funded by the Laudes Foundation and the government of the Netherlands, says its goal is to provide accurate, up-to-date factory data that enables greater productivity, accountability and transparency. The platform can also boost workplace safety, since it includes inspection information and notes the presence—or absence—of workers’ participation and safety committees.

“After the Rana Plaza incident, there was no information on the actual worker numbers and locations of factories,” Taslima Akhter, coordinator at Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity, an activist group, wrote on the website. “Such information can now be obtained from Mapped in Bangladesh and it will help us to raise [our] voice in favor of the workers.”

Nearly nine years after the watershed 2013 collapse, which killed 1,134 workers and injured thousands more, Bangladesh is working to promote factory safety in other ways. Last week, the BGMEA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and consultancy firm Particip to bolster engagement between factory management and workers through stronger factory committees. In January, the trade group inked an agreement with the International Labour Organization to train 700 safety-committee representatives from 75 factories to identify, assess and manage potential fire, infrastructure and Covid-19 hazards.

Meanwhile, the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), a tripartite organization of multinational brands, garment manufacturers and labor-rights groups that governs factory inspections in Bangladesh, is considering taking under its wing BGMEA member factories that fall outside the jurisdiction of the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which succeeded the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh in September.

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“This is a concrete proposal from the BGMEA, which has been negotiated when we were creating the RSC,” Miran Ali, vice president at the BGMEA, told Sourcing Journal. The non-Accord factories will be required to pay for their own inspections based on the square footage of their facility, he said. They will also be required to comply with RSC standards.

Ali said that this scheme will allow non-certified suppliers to appeal to Western buyers who only want to work with RSC factories. “These factories are going to be getting a lifeline because we have many factories that are perfectly compliant,” he added. “But because of a restrictive system in the past, which required you to have a lead brand before you could become an Accord- or RSC-listed factory [and] prevented a lot of other good factories from getting buyers, it was a cart and a horse situation.”

The BGMEA is now compiling a list of interested factories and it expects an onboarding process to begin in the coming weeks.

Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank that recently questioned if garment-worker safety was backsliding, approved of the plan.

“We appreciate the initiative to bring up the non-Accord factories under the RSC inspection program,” he told Sourcing Journal. “All the factories could come under a single administrative umbrella, which will help regulate and monitor [conditions] more efficiently and effectively.”

But the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of trade unions and non-profit organizations, cast doubt on the proposal’s long-term impact.

“We know from experience that initiatives where there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure that monitoring results in actual improvements rarely bring real change,” campaign and outreach coordinator Christie Miedema told Sourcing Journal. “The RSC is not a binding mechanism, it relies on the enforcement power of the Accord contract between unions and brands to ensure that factories are remediated.”

Miedema said that the scheme does not currently address the next steps after inspection, such as who pays for remediation and what happens if the factories fail to remediate, meaning that “chances are considerable” that little will happen after the initial inspection.

“It is worth remembering that all factories in Bangladesh were inspected against the same standard after Rana Plaza, but in the ones beyond the Accord coverage, where there is no enforcement or brand leverage, there has been barely any progress,” she said. ”The best way to have more factories inspected and properly remediated would be to have more brands sourcing from Bangladesh sign the Accord.”

Major brands such as Asda, Levi Strauss, The North Face owner VF Corp. and Walmart are still holding out, Miedema said. “A step that the BGMEA could take to support this process would be by disclosing its buyer lists, so we can see exactly which brands still fail to take responsibility for their workers’ safety,” she added.