How aid can help promote workplace safety in Bangladesh

    Employees working at a T-shirt factory in Bangladesh. The country is close to implementing a groundbreaking deal that puts labor rights and occupational safety within reach. Photo by: jankie / CC BY-NC-ND

    After a series of deadly factory collapses claiming thousands of garment workers’ lives, Bangladesh is close to implementing a groundbreaking deal that puts labor rights and occupational safety within reach.

    Over 70 apparel brands and retailers, international and local trade unions and non-profit groups have agreed on a plan to make vital changes in the country’s flailing construction and fire safety laws in the next five years.

    The agreement, inked in May, follows the tragedy of the 1,129 killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building in Dhaka, which could have been avoided if the sweatshops had been evacuated when cracks were spotted, the deadliest of many similar incidents reported in the country for years.

    The document is a first of its kind in Bangladesh: A legally-binding compact that allows independent building and fire safety inspections, the publication of inspection reports, worker-led health and safety committees in every factory and renovations of existing structures, all to be shouldered by the brands profiting from Bangladesh’s booming garments industry, which employs about 3.5 million people in the country.

    “We now have a real opportunity to make changes for the benefit of Bangladeshi workers, changes that are desperately needed,” Brian Kohler, director for health, safety and sustainability at the IndustriALL Global Union, told Devex.

    The new protocol will lead to an increased space for trade unions in Bangladesh in the short term, while ensuring a future of renovations and “a bigger landscape” for corporate social responsibility in the supply chains of the signatory firms including fashion giants H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, said Ben Vanpeperstraete from Clean Clothes Campaign.

    “We now have about 70 companies which project a single normative vision of how a specific labor right has to be tackled in their supply chains and they do that together. This hopefully expands to other countries, where companies can also work together with labor groups on a specific set of issues,” Vanpeperstraete told Devex.

    Challenges, opportunities

    Noticeably absent from the list of signatories are certain U.S. retailers like Gap and Wal-Mart, which drafted an alternative plan with no input from local trade unions.

    Vanpeperstraete is concerned that this “divisiveness” could discourage other brands and retailers from accepting the obligations set forth by the first agreement.

    “The task of the accord is really daunting — to take an entire sector and transform building and fire integrity of roughly 5,000 structures to acceptable standards, with so many actors involved,” he added.

    But the Clean Clothes Campaign spokesman believes the international development community can be the glue that binds all stakeholders together.

    Donors and NGOs should, Vanpeperstraete explained, align their objectives with the provisions of the accord, fostering cooperation and building bridges on the ground between actors inside a sector and beyond, especially with trade unions and civil society.

    “Any donor that works in isolation will reduce its relevance, since donor coherence is extremely important in a country like Bangladesh with about 49 trade unions in its fold,” he said.

    Kohler agrees that working independently “can cause disunity and problems” in the implementation of the agreement.

    “As a number of governments and donors have announced commitments of money and resources to help Bangladesh make improvements, some level of cooperation among the NGOs, unions, and other social partners would be ideal, or at the very least, good lines of communication,” he noted.

    While the Bangladeshi garment industry gears up for the reforms outlined under the historic pact, many of proponents of the accord, including the International Labor Organization, are lobbying for an even larger change: A new labor that conforms to international labor standards.

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    About the author

    • Johanna Morden

      Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.

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