A Dhaka factory collapse in 2013 threw the international spotlight on the working conditions in Bangladesh garment factories. Thankfully, concerted efforts to clean up the sector are now making a real difference.
When the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka collapsed in April 2013, some 1134 garment workers lost their lives and more than 2500 were injured. It was a wholly man-made disaster and one in which anyone who had ever rejoiced in buying a cheap T-shirt may have experienced a jolt of complicity. Western consumer demand for ‘fast fashion’ had led well-known brands to place orders with factories that exposed staff to danger and exploitation.
‘There were really dangerous working conditions,’ says Christina Hajagos-Clausen, a director of the IndustriALL Global Union, who is involved in ongoing work on fire and building safety in Bangladesh. ‘Rana Plaza wasn’t the first industrial homicide in Bangladesh; the country has been plagued with fires and similar issues, such as the Tazreen fire in 2012 [that killed 117 people].’
From the rubble
Afterwards, what came into focus was a wider tragedy affecting millions of workers in the garment sector. There was an appalling lack of health and safety protection, with respiratory problems caused by exposure to dust, dyes and chemicals, while disabling accidents and injuries were also common. Without statutory or industry-led protection, a predominantly young workforce was being set up for a lifetime of poor health and disadvantage.
‘It’s a top-down industry, with huge inequalities – the power and the profit is at the top with the global clothing brands, and the workers are at the bottom,’ notes Meg Lewis, campaigns director at Labour Behind the Label, a UK-based pressure group working to strengthen employees’ rights and safety conditions in the garment sector globally.
Nearly eight years on, conditions in hundreds of factories have improved. The household brands whose orders fed Bangladeshi factories came together with trade unions and activists to set up two complementary groupings, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Brands signed binding agreements with suppliers, exerting commercial pressure on factories to improve or face losing contracts.
Still, no one believes that the job has been done, or that Western shoppers are buying fair treatment and safety protection with their throwaway fashion. At the International Labour Organization (ILO), country director Tuomo Poutiainen – who heads a team of 100 staff working to improve conditions in all sectors in Bangladesh – says that the state-level regulatory safety net is still poor with limited inspection capacity, weak sanctions and few reliable statistics.
COVID-19, too, has been a confounding factor. With orders worth billions of pounds having been cancelled, and factories halting production, there are fears that safety could become less of a priority. ‘There is the immediate threat to health, and longer-term threats that [employers] back-pedal on the health and safety gains that have been made,’ Meg says.
The sense of shared responsibility for the Rana Plaza tragedy led to a multi-brand, multi-stakeholder response. Typically, several brands will source from the same supplier, meaning any brand trying to enforce a bespoke agreement would have limited traction. ‘We needed a way to harness the brands’ various relationships to make system changes,’ Christina says.
US fashion companies such as Macy’s, Walmart and JC Penney formed the core of the Alliance, while the Accord was headquartered in Amsterdam and led by European brands such as Tesco, Lidl, H&M and Benetton. Both addressed issues such as structural improvements, and fire safety and evacuation planning, but the Accord also focused on employees’ health and safety training and participation in decision-making, to underpin a safer working culture.
To fund the Accord’s required engineers, inspectors and consultants, brands paid fees according to the volumes they sourced from Bangladesh. Improvements were paid for by supplier factories, although in most cases they were ultimately financed by the brands, which either negotiated prices with their suppliers, loaned money or paid for the improvements themselves.
‘Some are big-ticket items that need a long time [to address] and detailed engineering plans – it’s not an easy fix,’ Christina says. The structural problems at Rana Plaza were not an isolated case, she notes, and fire protection and evacuation were often appalling, with workers left ‘trapped behind lockable gates’.
After initial inspections and reporting of findings, about 1200 factories in the Accord programme drew up ‘corrective action plans’ covering fire, electrical safety and structural safety, which were designed to be accessible to workers.
The Accord also says it has given health and safety training to an estimated 1.8 million workers, held all-staff meetings for thousands of people at a time, and given every employee a health and safety manual. In addition, there is intensive training and capacity building for OSH committees – 525 factories have fully functioning committees, and the rest are in development. ‘It’s a big chunk of work – the only way to ensure that factories stay safe is an active factory committee that can operate without fear of reprisal or victimisation,’ Christina says.
A separate initiative – the OHS Initiative for Workers and Community – was formed by six local non-governmental organisations, with funding from international donors, including IOSH. This ran a 20-day course to qualify 75 local garment workers as occupational safety and health trainers, who in turn ran training programmes in health and safety for a further 6000 workers.
Still, the Accord only addressed factories supplying its signatory brands, while the ILO estimates the two groups combined covered perhaps only 60% to 65% of producers. The rest have been assessed by a government scheme, called the National Initiative, which is supported by the ILO with funding from Canada, the Netherlands and the UK.
‘A high number are not covered – that’s where the government needs its own capacity to improve these factories,’ Tuomo says. These, he says, are primarily smaller manufacturers not linked to top brands.
Both the Alliance and the Accord had a five-year time span, with the former winding itself up in 2018. The latter’s attempt to extend its life by evolving into a ‘Transition Accord’ prompted a legal backlash from supplier trade associations resistant to its call to shut non-compliant factories. The Accord and its brands eventually brokered a new agreement through the courts to set up the Ready-Made Garments Sustainability Council (RSC), a Bangladesh-registered limited company owned by the brands, unions and garment-sector trade bodies.
A predominantly young workforce was being set up for a lifetime of poor health and disadvantage
The RSC inherited the operations, staff, policies and infrastructure of the Accord, and will technically be implementing it on behalf of the signatories until May 2021. The RSC will also take on responsibility for factories assessed by the Alliance and the National Initiative, ultimately leading to 100% sector coverage.
At Labour Behind the Label, Meg voices concern over the new organisation – while worker representatives made up 50% of the Accord, adding the voice of the supplier has reduced this to 33%. ‘The Accord promoted levels of worker participation that contributed to many successful improvements – workers could trust it and felt ownership,’ she explains. ‘In the RSC, the decision-making balance has been reduced. So we are pushing to protect the independence, transparency and leverage of the Accord. We do have hopes for the RSC but we need to see better, legally binding mechanisms.’
The RSC has taken up its role at a point where the Accord’s building safety programme at its factories is ‘more than 90% complete’, according to its quarterly aggregate report. ‘There’s always the 10% – some [factories] need a new alarm system, or a plumbing and sprinkler system. These are often complicated engineering processes that have to be retrofitted,’ Christina says. ‘Each factory is on a different pathway, but the last 10% has been a challenge.’
The UK picture: Safety off the peg?
Last summer, rocketing COVID-19 infections in Leicester were linked to the city’s garment industry, where many factories continued to operate at full capacity during lockdown. A June report by Labour Behind the Label identified UK retailer Boohoo as a main source of orders.
It said: ‘Most factories in Leicester are small workshops, often housed in dilapidated buildings with little investment in building safety and modern ventilation. It is inconceivable that such factories would be able to operate at full capacity while ensuring social distancing and adequate COVID-19 protection measures.’
It also reiterated previous findings on the garment sector, such as wages as low as £3 per hour and intimidation of vulnerable workers.
Following the publication of the report, IOSH strengthened its calls for more robust regulation of the UK garment industry. Richard Jones, head of policy and regulatory engagement, said: ‘IOSH continues to call for improved due diligence and supply chain transparency, licensing of the garment industry, effective enforcement, and consideration of a quality-mark for good work conditions.’
The British Retail Consortium also backs the idea of a ‘fit to trade’ licensing scheme to respond to exploitation and unsafe conditions in the sector. In July, it coordinated a letter to the Home Office on the issue signed by 100 retailers, MPs, investors, NGOs and other stakeholders; in October the Home Office responded that it is considering the issue.
Labour Behind the Label’s Meg Lewis says: ‘In many ways, the problems we have seen in Leicester typify the [issues seen] in very different countries, but people were more shocked to see it so close to home.’
According to data uncovered by The Guardian, the 1000-plus factories in the Leicester garment sector had received fewer than 60 HSE inspections since October 2017. Meg believes the UK authorities have prioritised other regulatory areas, such as the work of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.
‘We haven’t seen the kind of commitments we need to protect workers,’ she says. ‘The [government’s] “hostile environment” policy [towards illegal migrants] prevents people from speaking up, so we need better protection for whistleblowers. There is often a focus on rooting out illegal workers rather than looking at illegal work practices. It pushes workers further underground and puts them in a more vulnerable position.’
At the same time, the Bangladesh government has been boosting its response, with the ILO working alongside it to increase its regulatory and enforcement capacity. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) has grown from only 92 inspectors in 2013 – covering a ready-made garment workforce of two million – to 308 today, and has plans to build a workforce of 1700 inspectors.
Another shortfall it hopes to address is the dearth of statistics on accidents and occupational disease. ‘The systems are still very much lacking,’ the ILO’s Tuomo says. ‘We get information from monitoring the press, which tends to report major incidents with fatalities and injuries. There is some data on fire incidents and, although there are still fires, fatalities have gone down.’
Unfortunately, current regulatory powers and sanctions are no match for the scale of the problem. DIFE’s power to close factories is rarely used.
An update of labour laws is under discussion. ‘We expect it to result in improved legislation and more resources to hold employers accountable,’ Tuomo says. ‘The country is growing and has a large population, with two million young men and women coming to the labour market every year. It’s important to have systems to make that work as safely as possible.’
COVID-19 has had a major impact on the sector, forcing the government to step in with a stimulus package. At the RSC, inspections resumed in September, while health and safety training for workers has moved online. ‘The pandemic has meant a lot of retrenchment, and more active workers [in terms of campaigning] have been targeted,’ Christina says. ‘They are operating in a difficult environment with a lot of hostility to trade unions.’
Tuomo notes the positives. ‘Generally speaking, the industry has taken COVID-19 quite seriously. Employers have been trying to ensure maximum compliance with the guidelines [drafted with help from the ILO and the International Finance Corporation]. That doesn’t mean everyone is doing it, but there has been political and practical investment in encouraging compliance.’
So, since the Rana Plaza tragedy, just how much protection do workers have? Tuomo says: ‘It’s an uneven industry. But where factories have invested in worker education and trade unions are active, I hope there is a higher level of understanding of how to keep safe.’
Referring to the hundreds of factories covered by the Accord, Christina is positive about what has been achieved. ‘Yes, you can be confident that your workplace is safe, that you have a mechanism to report grievances that will be investigated and resolved, and you are being educated about how your factory is being fixed. From 2013 to 2020, there has been a huge difference.’