Bangladesh improves garment worker safety, rights

Nearly two years have passed since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka that housed several garment factories. More than 1,100 lives were tragically lost. In the interim, the government of Bangladesh has worked closely with industry to significantly improve conditions. Our work is not yet done, but much progress has been made.

To make certain such a disaster never happens again, the Bangladesh government, its citizens and coalitions of the world’s largest apparel companies have been working together to implement real and lasting change. Countrywide factory inspections, stiffened regulations and new funding for problem solving have combined with worker training to significantly improve safety and working conditions for garment workers.

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In the immediate wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, laws were passed to bolster worker rights. A fund was established to improve the standard-of-living of workers. Companies were required to put five percent of their annual profits into a worker welfare trust fund and workers were promised they wouldn’t face employer retaliation if they participated in protests.

The garment industry established two major industry bodies representing more than 200 global retailers and brands that buy apparel from Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety represents 190 mostly European brands, such as H&M and Primark. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety includes 26 North American brands, such as Wal-Mart and Target.

Together, the two groups have inspected 1,700 factories across Bangladesh. The results have been promising. In a September 2014 report, the Accord declared that 98 percent of inspected factories were safe.

During the inspections, 30 factories were found to be beyond repair and were closed as were parts of 17 other factories. These moves protected the lives of thousands of employees. Many factories were found to need safety upgrades. These improvements are underway thanks to the aid of private-sector and world-finance organizations. 

In December, American clothing maker VF Corporation and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation combined to offer $10 million in low-interest loans to factory owners to make needed safety upgrades. This initiative and others backed by the Alliance are responsible for making more than $100 million in low-cost loans available to factories.

These industry-backed organizations used cutting edge technology to catalogue the inspections. This ensured that they were thorough and were completed in a timely way. The U.S. company that conducted the Accord’s factory inspections, for example, built a mobile, online application that allows them to gather and transmit data and photographs around the world and to create reports.

Also in December, more than 10,000 people attended the three-day fire-and-safety exposition in Dhaka. Engineers demonstrated new safety technologies and gave workshops on fire prevention.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of factory workers are receiving training in fire and safety for the first time. Security guards at factories, for instance, are learning advanced evacuation techniques.

Workers are an integral part of these efforts. More than 200 new unions have been organized and recognized in Bangladesh over the past two years.

Although Bangladesh has moved forward with purpose and commitment, it hasn’t turned its back on what happened at Rana Plaza. Several major retailers have joined with labor unions and the Bangladesh government to create a $40 million fund to assist the families of Rana Plaza victims.

The U.S. government has publicly praised Bangladesh’s progress. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal proudly noted in the Bangladesh media in November that more than 200 new building inspectors have been hired across the country.

“We can say the loss of life was not in vain as it galvanized action in a way never before seen and that is the story we want to see unfold in Bangladesh,” she said. The 2013 tragedy “has resulted in a real effort that has brought together government, industry, labor, civil society and the international community in a sustained effort to transform the sector,” Biswal added.

Late last year, a top official from the U.S.-based National Fire Protection Association also said publicly that he was impressed.  “Bangladesh can be a model for other countries,” the association’s Donald Bliss told Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper.

That is the fondest wish of Bangladesh and its people.

Ziauddin is Bangladesh’s ambassador to the U.S.