Three weeks ago we observed the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster that took place on April 24, 2013 and resulted in death of 1,129 workers and injury to nearly 2,500 others. This took place four months after a deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions factory in Ashulia that killed more than 100 workers. We have also recalled on 1 May the great contribution being made by workers within our socio-economic matrix and the need for all of us to have a participatory engagement with them- both the employers as well as others involved with entrepreneurship.
There were, as expected, several discussions as well as evaluations about whether we have been able to take the necessary measures towards the removal of the existing challenges related particularly to our Ready Made Garment Industry sector. Reports presented during these exchange of views revealed that we have moved forward in certain areas but are also being held back in other facets.
The enormity of the Rana Plaza disaster hit global headlines. It also highlighted concerns about the safety for workers and their working conditions within Bangladeshi factories involved with the apparel trade. It may be recalled that the then US President Obama cut off GSP trade benefits for Bangladesh following this incident. BIDS Director General Dr. KAS Murshid in this context has however suggested that double standards are being followed and that Bangladesh has been unduly singled out on the labor standard issue while nothing has been done in this regard with Nepal, India, Vietnam, China and Cambodia.
It may be recalled that this also led to judicial action being initiated against those who were identified as having been responsible for this tragedy. The Savar police filed a case of culpable homicide against 21 persons, including the owner of the building Sohel Rana. 41 others were also accused under 12 different criminal charges on grounds of having threatened workers with loss of their jobs if they did not continue to work in conditions known to be hazardous. The chargesheet in the case was filed on 21 June, 2016 and the indictment in the case occurred on July 28, a little later. Till now however depositions have not been completed due to judicial complexities. The case over building code violations, filed by RAJUK is also stuck in the deposition phase.
It has also been alleged in a study carried out by ActionAid that 42.40 per cent of the survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse are still unemployed, some 48 per cent of the victims are physically impaired and 33.4 per cent are mentally ill. It has also been noted that many among those affected and seriously in need of medical attention and compensation have not receieved their due compensatory benefits. The State Minister for Labor and Employment has however pointed out that Taka 2850 million compensation has already been paid to family members of the affected parties from the relief fund of the Prime Minister, by the BGMEA, the ILO and other insttutions. It has also been explained that necessary medical attention is also being provided as far as possible. It has also been emphasized by some of the owners of factories that the payment made so far was meant to be a monetary support, not compensation.The High Court’s decision on compensation is yet to be resolved. In this context, Mr. Nasim Manzur, former President of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in a meeting convened by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has however critically observed that Bangladesh is being subjected to dual standards. He has also drawn attention to the fact that the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety (Alliance) was supposed to have provided US$100 million for enhancing safety in the factories but not a single penny has come from them to date.
Discussion at several levels however found some least common positive denominators.
Despite criticism about their role, Alliance appears to have tried to carry forward a constructive inter-engagement. Their press statement underlined that many of our factories had achieved substantial completion of their Corrective Action Plans. They also noted that millions of workers now have basic fire safety skills and access to their confidential Helpline Worker Safety committees. They have also pointed out that ‘their efforts have directly translated into lives saved and not a single garment worker has perished in an Alliance factory since their remediation work began.
Critical examination of the current dynamics and scenario within the RMG sector however also brought out to the surface an element which has been simmering for some time
Exasperated garment manufacturers have justifiably been quite critical of fair pricing of their products within the global supply chain against the backdrop of existing pressure on them to improve safety standards. Local apparel makers also drew the attention of participants in different workshops to the fact that over US$ One billion had already been invested so far to renovate and retrofit their factories as per the demand of the buyers, retailers and brands. Yet, according to them, retailers and brands have shown little interest in offering a reasonable price of the products they are now sourcing from Bangladesh. A garment purchased from a Bangladeshi factory at around US$ 5 is still being sold for between US$ 25 to 30 by the retailer, with the middle man making a hefty profit. Eminient economist Professor Rehman Sobhan described this as “a manifestation of an unjust global order”. He also pointed out that the current business model consequentially forces suppliers to squeeze their workers as much as they can because they have to produce the apparel piece at US$ 5.
In response, a senior official of an European brand has pointed out that the retailer does not make a lot of profit. Instead, they are forced to include in the pricing equation the fact that they are able to sell only 60% of the products at tagged prices. Of the remaining 40 per cent, 20 per cent is sold at discount prices and the rest 20 per cent is sold at clearance outlets or eventually just donated. This explanation is only partially acceptable as it does not refer to the high profit margin being retained by the middle-man. At the same time, it is also important that our Bangladeshi apparel manufacturers accept the fact that their internal unhealthy competition is partially responsible for the low prices of their producta. As such, it is natural that the buyer will take advantage of this possibility.
Four other significant points emerged from the different discussions.
The first was that a geographical mismatch existed in Bangladesh in terms of availability of labor. Some entrepreneurs pointed out that they cannot set up a factory where there is abundance of labor and, on the other hand, they do not find labor where they can set up factories. Our regulatory bodies need to address this issue through discussion.
The secnd relates to abundance of University educated professionals with Business Administration degrees but scarcity of technically educated workforce. This is something which needs to be taken care of through technical education and vocational training. This measure could be undertaken jointly on a Public Private Partnership basis. I am confident that the UNDP and the ILO can facilitate this process.
The third refers to the positive effect that has been generated because of the National Initiative introduced after the Rana Plaza disaster and the role played by Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. It has been revealed that their efforts have led to inspection and remedial measures having been undertaken till 31 October 2015 in 1,475 factories. After necessary improvements 34.8% of these factories have received green mark (fully safe), 47.3% yellow mark (safe to some extent), 15.4% amber (still having some safety concerns) and 1% black (still unacceptable). It is understood that 90 engineers from 20 engineering firms are involved in the remedial process. Difficulties apparently still exist with regard to factories located in rented buildings or if they are located in buildings shared with others. Nevertheless, one can term this effort as a step forward. Success in this regard will encourage other factory owners to also step forward in this inter-active engagement aimed at acceptable remediation.
The fourth dealt with the issue of allowing trade unions in the RMG sector. The ILO representative in Dhaka Mr. Srinivas B Reddy correctly pointed out that this crucial area in our economy needs a transformative change in the relationships and partnerships upon which industries are built. He suggested that this can be brought about through greater social dialogue between the government, employers and workers. It may be recalled that in June 2016, the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards concluded a special paragraph calling for further amendments to the Bangladesh Labor Act relating to freedom of association and collective bargaining so that it is consistent with international labor standards, including revisiting the minimum 30% requirement of membership for union registration.
It was pointed out during the discussions that trade union registration has significantly increased over the last two years. As of February, 2017, the number of RMG trade unions stand at 571. Rights activists have complained that the number would have been much higher had it not been for general anxiety among workers that employers generally have a negative attitude about this and any attempt in this direction is frowned upon. Mijail Shipar, Senior Labor and Employment Secretary of the government has however assured that the government is trying to mitigate suffering and will be introducing a standard operational method with a time-frame so workers can get registered in a shorter period of time. It has also been revealed by the relevant government authorities that the government will now allow workers of Export Processing Zones factories to form trade unions. It may be added here that Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed has also indicated that if 50% of the members of the Workers Welfare Association (WWA) of the EPZ factories consented to registering as a trade union, then the WWA would be allowed to register under Ministry of Labor and Employment as a trade union. This decision followed after repeated warning from the European Union that unless there was some visible progress in the promotion of worker’s rights, it would affect the duty free and quota free access that Bangladesh products presently enjoy in terms of entry into the EU under the EBA principle.
This analysis would however remain incomplete if we failed to take into account workplace deaths also taking place in the non-RMG sector. The Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies has recently indicated that in 2016 there were 1,403 casualties in other sectors, of whom 699 died. The highest number of casualties was in the transport sector. There were also quite a few incidents of boilers exploding and causing casualties in factories. In response to this revelation, the Ministry of Labor and Employment has announced that the dynamics of ensuring safety at workplaces will be widened and extra funds would be made available by the government to ensure such security.
Any analysis of the above aspects will only reiterate the government’s political will towards overcoming the challenges within the RMG sector. We will have to be more patient and work together in a coordinated manner. This will enable the Phoenix to rise from the ashes more effectively.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at )