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‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’: Bangladesh RSC One Year Later

With more than 1,650 factories under its purview for fire and building safety inspections, Bangladesh’s Readymade Garments Sustainability Council (RSC) put out its first annual report in January. Its inaugural year has seen a series of challenges, not the least of which were the communications and inspections themselves which had to be re-tailored with pandemic protocols in mind.

The RSC took over the premises, teams and the concerns of the more than 220 global brands and retailers covered by the Accord, including Primark, Tesco, H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Benetton and Adidas, among others.

With the garment sector accounting for 84 percent of Bangladesh’s total exports in 2021, providing employment to more than 4 million workers, and as the second largest garment exporter in the world, the new programs in the RSC’s first year have been instrumental in the process of change.

In an exclusive conversation with Sourcing Journal, Iqbal M Hussain, managing director and acting chief safety officer at the RSC, shared some insights on the implementation process and on-the-ground changes in Bangladesh during Covid-19.

Sourcing Journal: You often talk about how “how to eat an elephant in bite-sized pieces.” How has that translated in practical terms?

Iqbal Hussain: There are a huge number of factories that have reached 90 percent completion, however, for one reason or another, they didn’t get to 100 percent. So, project R—where R stands for Risk—does a deep dive into what those issues are and why the factories didn’t get to 100 percent. So right now, we have just under 93 percent done in the 1,270 factories in that group. It is a massive group.

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What we wanted to do was to work out an implementation plan—the phrase here is—how to eat an elephant in bite-sized pieces. In this case, 1,270 factories is my elephant, how can I make the risk profiles, find the common issues and work out the solutions to make this 100 percent? We can only do that by creating bite-sized solutions, which is what we have been doing.

We already have more than 400 factories that are 100 percent corrected. Including these, we will have close to 1,700 factories that finally get to achieve what was originally envisaged.

That’s the aim for year two.

SJ: How has the credibility and functioning of RSC changed over the year as it took over from the Accord on June 1, 2020?

I.H.: I’ll tell you one thing—when the RSC was created there was a perception that the RSC may not function in certain areas, the performance would be different. But one of the things we demonstrated and one of the things I focused on was for its credibility, transparency, and for the world to know that the RSC builds on the work done by the Accord and carries it on. And in that respect, inspections, remediation and all operational matters are consistent, the safety training is provided to all the workers and we have a full and functional complaints mechanism. We had an incredible performance in the Covid situation. The team was able to deliver amazing results.

SJ: What are the majority of these missing pieces to make the bite-sizes palatable?
I.H.: A lot of these are fire-related. Fire was a very challenging aspect of the work that was carried out in Bangladesh by the Accord, by the Alliance, and there was a lot of steep learning, with technology, with science and new techniques. Sprinkler systems, hydrant systems, water tanks, fixtures and fittings that go into fire-protecting a building.

SJ: Is achieving 100 percent even realistic given all the factors that go into running a factory, including taking human error into account?
I.H.: Yes. We’re dealing with inanimate issues.

It’s like your factory needs retro fitting—is it done—yes or no? How can we get it done? How can we overcome the challenge and turn that into an opportunity?

SJ: Are factories resentful in having to work on fixing things when they’ve been battling Covid-19 and other related issues?
I.H.: I didn’t feel any resentment. It is almost a given, an understanding that your factory really does need to be compliant for it to do international business. There is the physical benefit that the factory has been remediated but the consequential benefit is the mindset change. That is: “If I want to do a garment factory, I should start with a compliant building.”

SJ: How has the factories’ risk profile changed over this time? Is it less about relocation of buildings than it was in the early days?
I.H.: In the early days of the Accord there were a lot of findings, some of them quite serious which required relocation of the business, but now, over time, the risk profile has changed for the better. It is 2022. Everybody is aware of the Accord standard, the Alliance standard, and if they are going to start up a factory, they are already thinking these things through. They don’t want to fail an audit and already know some of the problems to avoid, so that is congratulations to the Accord and Alliance that the thought process has changed. I am privileged, because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

Now it is not so much about relocating, but completing this process of change.

SJ: Has the process of communication intensified in this first year, given the changing state of the world?
I.H.: Communication was much needed. We’ve done a detailed mapping exercise, hired a media and communications manager and it is between our nuclear team and the industry, brands, unions, the affiliates of the unions, as well—and we have been doing workshops with them. There is a lot of communication. There is the government coordination council (GCC), the 3+5+1 in which the three are the Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the five are USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, European Union and one is the International Labour Organization (ILO). We’re really doing the very best that we can in the challenging circumstances of Covid. People are engaging and working better now.

SJ: It seems clear now that the Alliance factories are not going to join RSC, as was earlier anticipated…
I.H.: In the early days when the RSC was being formed, and Alliance was just going to finish, I think there was a suggestion that the RSC would take over the Alliance factories as well. I was previously a brand signatory and I remember the conversation at that time, but that was a long time ago, and that didn’t happen.

SJ: There would be many things about RSC’s first year that don’t necessarily show up in a report…what were the hidden challenges?
I.H.: Obviously, it’s not an easy job. There is a saying: “think on your feet.'” I would say instead it has been about “thinking on your toes.” You have to solve problems each day, to think outside the box, and coaching and guiding and mentoring the team is what I do for the vast majority of my time. I ask them to just take a piece of paper and draw three boxes—box one, a summary of the current status quo. What do we know? Box two is our standards. Box 3 is our discussion. Then in my capacity as the Acting CSO I review these boxes with the team, and in the discussion see what the possible solutions are and then we pick out the one that we will recommend. That’s how we’ve been working.

SJ: How about priorities for year two?
I.H. In the second year, we have been striving to continue our engagement with both local and international stakeholders; developing long-term, sustainable funding models and strengthening the RSC’s operational capabilities. We are taking a goal-driven approach to reach 100 percent initial CAP completeness of the factories. The ultimate goal is for factories to reach the completed status (covering all initial and new findings). Additionally, our list for the second year onward includes developing proficiencies to include promotion of better industrial relations, continuous skills development, establishing dedicated environmental sustainability including a focus on water and carbon, and introducing other climate positive initiatives. Also, a more sustainable financial situation for RSC.