Improving garment worker safety in Bangladesh

On April 24, 2013, a terrible tragedy struck the Bangladesh garment industry. While the collapse of Rana Plaza wasn’t the first structural disaster the industry has experienced, it was one of the most devastating garment-factory collapses in human history.

And so, the attention of the world has turned to Bangladesh, a country whose garment industry employs more than four million Bangladeshis, most of whom are women. Garment workers often depend on their jobs making clothing to support themselves and their families. And thus it is incumbent upon retailers and brands, the U.S. government, the Bangladesh government, the international development community, factory owners and workers, and labor to work together to create a long-term culture of safety in these factories.

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Last summer, a group of leading North American apparel companies responded to the call to action, coming together to launch the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety—a five-year, $50 million, legally binding commitment to improve garment factory safety.

The situation in Bangladesh is complex and challenging.  The 700 factories that make products for the Alliance member companies are only a small fraction of the roughly 5,000 factories in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry.  Rapid industry growth and urbanization have led to factories sprouting up in apartments and other places that are ill-suited to large-scale garment production and make unauthorized sub-contracting even more dangerous than usual.  There are too few government inspectors, labor laws have been too weak for too long, and recent political instability has taken attention away from focusing on worker and factory safety. 

These circumstances only reinforce the need for a collaborative approach to creating a safe and inclusive environment for factory workers, one that contributes to economic growth and stability in Bangladesh.  There is a shared responsibility among all of those interested in Bangladesh’s success and prosperity to create sustainable, long-term change.

Over the past several months, technical experts from the Alliance, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) worked together to develop a common Fire Safety and Structural Integrity Standard that is being used for factory inspections in Bangladesh, demonstrating that all parties can come together to drive change. Efforts such as these must continue amongst government, civil society, and business if we are to improve fire and structural safety conditions for the long-term.

For its part, the Alliance emphasizes building local capacity to empower workers.  Garment workers bring unique insights into potential safety issues and must feel comfortable raising any concerns to factory management without fear of retribution.  We have surveyed and interviewed more than 3,200 Bangladeshi workers in 28 factories to hear their input on factory safety issues.  We plan to collaborate closely with worker representatives to share factory improvement plans and alert them immediately to any urgent safety issues.  An anonymous, 24-hour helpline will help workers raise safety issues before they become emergencies, enabling two-way communication and providing a platform for education.   

Despite the circumstances, Bangladesh is starting to see tangible progress.  To date, fire safety, structural and electrical inspections have been completed in 222 Alliance factories (31 perent).  (Alliance member companies have committed to inspect 100 percent of all member-approved factories by July 2014.) A number of factories that produce products for Alliance member companies are already installing some of the first industrial fire systems in the country.  Thanks to new fire doors, sprinklers and smoke detection systems, tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh are benefitting from a safer work environment. 

While the situation is complex, one thing is clear - improving safety in the Bangladesh garment industry cannot be done unilaterally.  Collaboration amongst all those who share responsibility for garment factory safety is the way forward.  The work won’t be done overnight – solutions will take time to adopt and sustain, and we all must be dedicated to achieving results that will set a new standard for Bangladesh garment industry workers.  Our ultimate goal is to help ensure that safe workplaces in Bangladesh become the rule, not the exception, for all women and men employed in the Bangladesh ready-made garment industry.  We are committed to working together to help implement lasting solutions.

Tauscher represented California's 10th Congressional District from 1997 to 2009. She is also a former under secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, and is currently the independent chair of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.