It isn’t all doom and gloom in Bangladesh as some media reports portray—the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety said factories are improved, workers feel safer and factory owners have more confidence in the conditions of their facilities.
On a call outlining its first quarter progress Wednesday, Executive Director Ambassador James Moriarty said he was proud of how far the country has come since the safety initiative aimed at improving conditions in Bangladesh’s ready made garment sector started up in 2013.
One change that came to the forefront? Fires in Bangladesh garment factories have dropped by more than 90 percent in recent years, going from 250 in 2012 to 30 in 2015, and last year’s fires saw no lives lost.
Moriarty didn’t gloss over the 30 fires that did happen in 2015—seemingly one after the next—saying it was “concerning” and that it “underscores the need for factories to quickly complete the most critical remediation efforts.” That said, however, workers and security guards responded well and handled the fires and evacuations safely, an encouraging sign, according to the ambassador.
The Alliance has stuck to its zero tolerance policy for factories that don’t make progress addressing safety concerns. The number of factories suspended (meaning Alliance signatory brands—Macy’s, VF and Gap among them—won’t do business with them) in the first quarter more than tripled, moving from 24 in December to 77 currently.
“And we expect to see this trend continue as we suspend factories that fail to make adequate progress,” Moriarty said, adding that those that don’t address the safety concerns are (naturally) more at risk for the kinds of accidents that could cause injury, or even death.
In February, the Alliance cut ties with three factories over faked inspection reports, and has severed connections with others for not complying with remediation recommendations because they weren’t making goods for Alliance brands, or for simply doing little to nothing where the upgrades were concerned.
Some have called the factory suspensions cruel and counter to improving economic conditions in a country reliant on manufacturing, but it isn’t something the Alliance wants to do, the initiative’s senior advisor, Ian Spaulding, said. Rather, it’s a last resort to drive change.
“We are hopeful that while suspension might feel a bad thing for that factory,” he said, “It might be a wake-up call for the factory owner to remediate.”
The Alliance recently began a policy of posting public notifications of factory suspensions on its website—a practice the country’s leading apparel body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), is looking to quiet.
In response, Moriarty told Sourcing Journal on the call, “We think that we wouldn’t be serving the public if we didn’t bring this information into the public.” The Alliance is still working with the BGMEA, he reiterated, and will continue to work with the trade body. “Frankly, I think the need for transparency and the need for buyers and customers to know that their products are being made in safe factories outweighs that.”
It has been three years since the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse that sparked the launch of the Alliance, and Spaulding said the group has made “considerable” progress to protect workers.
Twenty-four factories have been fully remediated, meaning they are up to necessary safety standards, and six more are expected to close in on completing safety improvements by the end of April.
The Alliance uncovered 48,500 issues over the course of its factory inspections and more than 23,000, or 49 percent, have been verified as being addressed.
“Importantly, nearly half of our factories have fewer than five high-priority safety risks left to address,” Spaulding said. “So working with these factories to prioritize issues are most likely to impact life safety and is our top priority moving forward.”
More than 1.2 million workers at Alliance factories have been trained in fire safety and 20,000 security guards have been trained to properly lead evacuations. A worker helpline for anonymous reporting is now available to 866,000 workers in 650 factories, and the line receives an average of 250 calls a day. Upwards of 6,500 workers who have been displaced by factory remediations have gotten financial aid and the Alliance said it is rolling out democratically elected safety committees in more than 250 factories by the end of this year.
When asked why only 24 of the Alliance’s more than 700 factories have been fully remediated, Moriarty said he would have loved to see factories remediate faster but that the change has still been substantial in a short space of time.
“We should never say that this is sort of a finish line and once we do a CAP [corrective action plan] closure, then we’re done. We’re never done,” he explained. “There was an earthquake today and those 24 factories are going to have to check to make sure their safety is still up to standard.”
Spaulding seconded the notion, saying, “Creating a safer Bangladesh garment industry requires significant time and resources, and we’ve approached all aspects of our work with a long-term view in how it can be sustained beyond 2018.”