5 years after Rana Plaza, worker safety has improved, but more remains to be done

Through a fire and building safety course supported by USAID, garment workers, union leaders and factory management learn about fire and building safety codes and preventative measures, and practice steps to take in an emergency. Photo by: Solidarity Center / CC BY-NC

WASHINGTON — There are regular inspections. There are fire doors and sprinklers. There are safety committees where there weren’t before. Workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry are safer than they were five years ago when the Savar building collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing 1,134 garment workers in Dhaka, the country’s capital. But for many, progress has fallen short of its potential in the wake of a disaster that shook a country, an industry, and the world.

Five years on, there are some truths that are widely agreed upon: Garment workers in Bangladesh, specifically those in factories monitored by two agreements that came in the wake of the disaster, are safer today than they used to be. But while there may now be clear fire escapes, rules against locking doors, and checks to ensure structural stability, workers still struggle to make a living on the low wages they earn and fear speaking up or reporting issues; and future compliance remains uncertain as the government prepares to take on more of the monitoring efforts.

Companies have also changed. The Rana Plaza disaster led 220 foreign brands to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a unique binding agreement that set up a monitoring and remediation system in the factories where the mostly European brands sourced from. Other brands, primarily from North America, joined the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Today more of those buyers recognize that factory safety is important and that they will be held to account, and more are being more transparent about publicly listing where they source their products.

“The experiment with those two initiatives seems to have worked in great measure,” said Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

But the Alliance and the Accord had five-year clocks on the agreements, and the time is nearly up. That makes it a time for assessment, reflection, and questions about what’s next.

In the past five years, approaches have been tested and tweaked, capacity has been built, and survivors have had varied levels of support. Those involved today may not have been there amid the rubble and the screams and the sobs, but the lessons they have learned points to a path forward, for Bangladesh, and, perhaps, for garment workers toiling in unsafe working conditions in other parts of the world.  

Progress

In the years preceding the Rana Plaza disaster, it was clear a problem was building, but there wasn’t an appetite for change, or at least that’s how Jim Moriarty, the executive director of the Alliance, who served as the United States ambassador to Bangladesh from 2008 to 2012, remembers it.

There was a steady stream of fires and other problems at factories, and while the garment industry was an important source of income, especially for women, it was evident there were major issues, he told Devex. Moriarty tried “ultimately unsuccessfully,” he said, to draw attention to the issues before the disaster.

Moriarty described the progress in the past five years as “amazing” and “encouraging,” but warned that workers must continue to have safe conditions.

The data, at least for the Accord and Alliance-monitored factories seems to support his praise.

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Between 2006 and 2009, there were 213 fires that killed 414 workers in Bangladesh garment factories. By comparison, since Rana Plaza, only about 40 workers have died in garment factories related to safety issues, said Christie Miedema, the campaign and outreach coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Factories covered by the Accord and the Alliance are safer in part because they underwent a series of inspections, had plans to fix the problems identified, and those that didn’t comply were not allowed to work with member companies.

During those inspections, a litany of problems were identified, including structural flaws, blocked fire exits, and a lack of fire doors and proper fire alarm and sprinkler systems. About 84 percent of those problems at Accord factories have been addressed, and 90 percent of issues at Alliance factories have been remediated. The Accord terminated 96 of its roughly 800 suppliers, and the Alliance 168 of its roughly 2,000. Millions of workers have been trained on safety procedures and safety committees have been formed at many factories.

However, factories under the purview of the government’s national initiative continue to have many safety challenges. The government inspected 1,549 factories and closed 513 which were determined to be unsafe, but since then, it has reported working with only 754 factories, according to a new report from the Center for Business and Human Rights.

As of February, of the 754 factories the government has inspected, only 14 percent have fixed more than 50 percent of the problems, with only 21, or 3 percent, fully remediating the safety violations, the report said, citing the International Labour Organization. The report also states that there may be an additional 900 factories recently added to the list, and it is unclear if they have been inspected or if remediation efforts are underway.

The success of the externally led efforts and the fact that they were limited to factories exporting to Europe and the U.S., has created a bifurcation of the industry, Barrett said. Factories exporting their products and monitored by the Alliance or the Accord have made rapid gains, but workers at factories overseen by the government — which export to Russia, Asia, and sell domestically — or at smaller subcontractors continue to face unsafe conditions.

Challenges

Making progress hasn’t been simple: Both in supporting victims, in the remediation, and critically in areas such as wage growth and workers’ rights to organize.

Supporting victims was complicated at times, not just because of their varied needs, but also because sometimes politics got in the way. BRAC worked closely with ILO and the government of Bangladesh on the compensation fund, which was held up at one point as the rates of compensation were debated, said Sharad Aggarwal, vice president of BRAC USA.

“How to calculate the appropriate compensation became a sensitive issue,” he said, adding that ultimately ILO’s guidelines were chosen, but they were largely centered on the view of an immediate family needing support, whereas in Bangladesh the extended family often also relies on a worker’s wages.

There were also challenges around identifying those most severely affected among the roughly 2,500 people who were injured, how to ensure medical care costs were covered, and also how to provide long-term income.

“If you talk about providing support to survivors, for us, we believe it should just go on through life,” said Mrityunjoy Das, senior program manager on BRAC’s disaster management and climate change team. “We believe they deserve it. It is us who caused the tragedy.”

This was a unique and challenging response, he said. The livelihood program had to be customized to account for the different physical and psychosocial needs of each survivor. Certain programs had to adapt — group psychosocial counseling didn’t always prove to be enough, while for amputees, they needed help accepting the loss of limbs and learning how to live with prosthetics.

One of the persistent and ongoing challenges is garment industry wages. While safety of labor is crucial, poor wages continue to undermine workers, said Das.

In the immediate aftermath, there was some hope on issues such as wages and the ability of workers to organize. The government initially worked quickly, passing a new labor law, increasing the minimum wage by 77 percent to $65 a month, and accepting more trade unions, said Miedema. Unfortunately, some of those gains have been short-lived. The minimum wage, for example, hasn’t been raised since early 2014, though it should be reviewed this year. Brands have continued to push factories to produce quickly and are paying even lower prices than they were before Rana Plaza, she said.

“In many ways, it’s almost worse off because prices dropped more since, which is incomprehensible,” Miedema said.

The challenge in addressing some of the wage issues is that having a low-wage, high volume model is what has made Bangladesh attractive to brands. That makes it difficult to break the mold and increase the minimum wage, Barrett said. One way that companies may be able to help address the challenge is to look at how they do their purchasing, and have long-term cooperation with suppliers and fewer last minute changes, he said.

There have also been practical implementation challenges. Both Oldenziel and Moriarty said that capacity and the actual remediation of factories are among the greatest challenges in improving safety. With roughly 2,000 factories clamoring for fire doors, there wasn’t enough capacity, even globally, to meet the need for safe equipment, Moriarty said. And at the time, there wasn’t a single fire safety graduate engineer in Bangladesh, he said. Financing was also a challenge for some factories, so repairs were delayed as funding agreements could be negotiated with brands, Oldenziel said.

Both the Alliance and Accord have been working to improve local capacity, helping to train the local engineers needed to do the inspections and installations, and working with the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and the government to build capacity in key fire safety and workplace safety-focused engineering specialties.

What next?

While there have been safety gains, there is now concern about whether they will continue as the initial terms of the Accord and the Alliance expire. There are a number of proposals aimed at figuring out how best to address that challenge and others facing the garment industry both in Bangladesh, and elsewhere.

In this next phase, some are calling for a new framework around worker safety. Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications at the International Labor Rights Forum said that safety should include  the ability of workers to form unions and to collectively bargain for better conditions or wages without retaliation.

“I urge them to take a more holistic view of safety to ensure workers are truly safe, not only from a potential fire or building collapse, but that they can raise their voices at work and are not slapped, or sexually harassed when sitting at the sewing machines,” she said.

Foxvog cautioned against going back to a model of “voluntary corporate responsibility that has failed garment workers around the world.”

What seems clear is that there are ongoing concerns about the government’s ability to take over the monitoring of the factories that have been under the purview of the Accord and the Alliance, which has resulted in a couple different proposals for how to transition responsibility.

The Accord will be extending its work in Bangladesh. In October 2017, the Accord signatory companies, the unions, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, ILO, and the government agreed to a set of handover criteria the government must meet to take over the functions of the Accord. Among the requirements are ensuring government capacity to inspect all factories in Bangladesh, with a proven track record of enforcement of sanctions or withdrawal of export licenses if factories don’t fix problems.

The new 2018, or transition, accord, which has already been signed by about 140 brands, will have a greater focus on capacity building, to help prepare the government for a transition. The new agreement is slated to last for three years, with the possibility of extending to a fourth year, or wrapping up its work earlier than the three-year mark if the government is ready to take over, Oldenziel said. Every six months, a joint monitoring panel will review the government’s readiness.

There are a few key differences in the 2018 accord: All factories will be treated equally rather than having a tiered system, it has an increased emphasis on freedom of association, and Accord brands can also add subcontractors to the list of factories to be inspected. There is also the potential to expand its scope to related industries such as home textiles and fabric accessories, as well as to other parts of the supply chain such as spinning, weaving, washing dying and packaging.  

But there may also be challenges to the Accord’s continued operations. In the NYU Stern report, Siddique Rahman, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, is quoted as saying: “We allowed the Accord and Alliance to operate for five years. Then it was agreed they would go back. They are unnecessarily disturbing us.”  

The Alliance, by contrast, has decided to stop its operations as planned but is working to create a safety monitoring organization, an independent and credible monitoring body, that would take over the inspections, remediation oversight, and accountability checks, as a bridge to the government overseeing all that work, Moriarty said. The organization would partner with ILO, the government, the BGMEA, and member brands, and factories that were part of the Alliance would continue to be monitored, with a third party inspection roughly every 18 months and regular audits of self-reported factory data. He likened the safety monitoring organization to the U.S. government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and said it would have power because brands would only source from companies that are part of the organization and would stop sourcing from factories that fell short.

It would also be a vehicle for continuing training programs including basic worker safety training, training security guards, and a new effort to train mid-level managers.

“We think that’s the way we begin to build a sustainable model,” Moriarty said.

“I think there is absolutely a crucial role for international organizations like the ILO to play but … eventually the country itself has to align politics and policy so that it’s industry is held to a suitable standard of safety.”

— Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights, NYU Stern

Barrett, and his coauthors in the report, suggest a somewhat similar arrangement — an international task force led by Bangladeshis to address factories and conditions that yet been well addressed. But, Barrett added, ultimately it will be the responsibility of the government to effectively regulate the industry.

“I think there is absolutely a crucial role for international organizations like the ILO to play but I would come back to the point that eventually the country itself has to align politics and policy so that it’s industry is held to a suitable standard of safety,” he said.

When it comes to wages, meanwhile, this year may well be the moment of change, as the 2013 law required an increase at least every five years. What that increase might be is unknown, but trade unions are asking to triple wages to make up for inflation and get to a fair wage, Miedema said.

The country also needs a better injury insurance system, one administered by the government, she said. Workers have to show that the employer is at fault, which is a high bar, and often injury insurance payouts are limited, rather than ensuring money for the rest of the injured worker’s life, Miedema said. In 2015, the government of Bangladesh, supported by ILO, committed to creating a system, but there has been very little progress, she said.

BRAC, for its part, has launched a project aimed at transparency and accountability that will map and document basic information about all the factories in Bangladesh’s garment sector.

“Having that information will really allow us to continue to build the relationships among the different actors to talk about challenges,” Aggarwal said.  

Replication?

With success in improving workplace safety in Bangladesh, it seems natural that questions would arise about the replicability of the model, and the idea of trying it in different countries or with different industries.

Some brands have asked the Accord about going to other countries, Oldenziel said, but with the 2018 Accord, its focus will continue to be on Bangladesh. “I don’t see why in the future we couldn’t go to other countries where there are similar safety concerns, it’s up to the signatories to decide. I don’t know how broadly shared the appetite is.”

The key components, if such an agreement is replicated, are ensuring there is an independent inspection regime, that there is clear disclosure framework and that workers representatives need to be involved in the governance. Those are the elements that made the Accord unique and would merit consideration in any replicated efforts. Also key was that the Accord allowed brands to use their collective leverage to demand change, Odenziel said.

There have been some recent efforts to try to replicate elements of the Alliance or Accord in other countries. The Life and Building Safety initiative which is managed by IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, aims to provide safer working conditions for factory workers in the ready-made garment and footwear industry through developing country-specific solutions, according to its website. IDH declined an interview, saying the project was in the pilot phase so they could not comment. LABS is working in India and Vietnam, with plans to expand to Pakistan and Cambodia, helping to bring together brands, governments, civil society, and technical experts to create frameworks for monitoring factories, assessing problems, reducing risks, and remediating challenges

As companies do think about replicating the model and using their leverage to demand greater safety, “they should be careful to think about whether they can include all garment factories in a given country so they don’t get bifurcation,” Barrett said.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.

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