The workers at readymade garment (RMG) factories suffer from physical discomforts due to excessive heat exposure inflicted by global warming which eats up a significant amount of their work hours.
The amount is projected to reach 5 per cent of the workers' total work hours by 2030, but there is no significant initiative at the factories to control heat in an environment-friendly way.
Citing the scenario, speakers at a roundtable on Tuesday underscored the need for emergency steps regarding the issue as it is directly related to the health safety of the workers.
The roundtable, styled “Safe work environment for garment workers and impact of climate change”, was organised by Prothom Alo at its office in the capital on Tuesday, in association with Griffith University (Australia), BMT, The University of Sydney, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), The International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr’b) and UK-based charity organisation Wellcome.
The chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on ministry of labor and employment and also the chief guest of the roundtable, Mujibul Haque, said the safety issues of factories and workers were a new phenomenon even a few years ago. But these have been ensured gradually.
The issue of heat control emerged as a fresh concern. It also can be addressed if the stakeholders, including the government, donor groups, owners and workers, take a coordinated initiative.
He suggested experimental launching of heat control mechanisms at a few factories for the time being.
Shahidullah Azim, vice president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), suggested to put focus on controlling the heat exposure through natural means. It needs to hold workshops in participation of stakeholders to control heat at the factories.
Noting that the garment sector in Bangladesh has a success story in ensuring safety at factories, he said heat controlling would not require much financing, rather it would need awareness.
Mohammad Hatem, executive president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), believes there is a need for more detailed recommendations to control heat exposure at garment factories. The garment sector encountered an image crisis following the Rana Plaza tragedy and managed to bounce back from the crisis. Bangladesh is now a country of safe and environment-friendly factories.
He further said it is not enough to think about the environment in factories only, rather the condition of the places where the workers spend the remaining 14 to 16 hours daily should also be standard.
The programme officer (RMG-2) of International labour Organization, AKM Masum Ul Alam, said the heat exposure due to climate change is a part of the professional problem, which requires more discussions. It is necessary to analyse how the issue has been mentioned in the government policies regarding the safety of workers.
The discussants were informed that a research project is underway on the escalating heat exposure in garment factories in Bangladesh due to climate change and its impact on workers. With the support of Wellcome, Griffith University, The University of Sydney, BUET and icddr’b are jointly implementing the three-year project.
Fahim Tonmoy, a member of the research team and associate chief engineer of BMT and also a research fellow at Griffith University; Jean Palutikof, professor of climate change at Griffith University; Ollie Jay, professor of heat and health at The University of Sydney; Aaron Bach, post-doctoral research fellow at Griffith University; and Farzana Yeasmin, PHD researcher at Griffith University presented the key note paper at the roundtable.
According to their presentation, the temperature in Bangladesh is predicted to rise by 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 and heat waves will be a regular phenomenon by then. The factories would increasingly use air conditioners (ACs) to tackle the adversities and consume fossil fuels like coal and gas, making the situation more critical.
But it is possible to reduce the temperature by 2 to 3 degrees with some initiatives to control the heat naturally. It will not waste the working hours and minimise the workers' discomforts.
Fahim Tonmoy said merely the installation of ACs is not the solution. If measures are not taken to control the heat in the factories, it may have an adverse effect on the economy.
The energy consumption rate is high at the factories due to lack of natural air and light, said BUET’s architecture department professor Ashikur Rahman Joarder.
He told the participants that it is possible to build zero energy buildings in Bangladesh using natural light and air. A pilot project can be undertaken with the recommendations to reduce the heat of climate change.
Fahmida Tofail, scientist at nutrition and clinical services division (NCSD) of icddr’b, said no environment-friendly initiative has been taken to control the heat exposure in the garment factories here. Heat reduces the productivity of workers and is associated with various health complications, including fatigue, fainting.
Tania Haque, professor of women and gender studies department at Dhaka University, said most of the RMG workers are women and they face various problems inside and outside the factories. Their needs should be identified first and solved accordingly to achieve inclusive development.
Prothom Alo associate editor Anisul Hoque said the world is getting warmer and the garment factories are not out of it. The focus should be placed on building a just world so that the small countries do not have to drown due to the warming by the rich ones.
Hafizur Rahman, chairperson of the occupational safety board at the Institute of Engineers Bangladesh (IEB) said the heat conditions in Dhaka and outside Dhaka are different. The heat exposure might be different in the capital once the metro rail is launched. These issues should be kept in mind while adopting a policy.
China Rahman, president of the Federation of Garment Workers, said the government and the owners should come forward to control the heat in the factories. Emphasis is placed on the safety of factory buildings, but the issue of workers’ health safety remains overlooked.
Nafizur Rahman, sustainability secretary of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh, believes it is necessary to keep in mind the issue of heat control and seek the professionals’ help during the construction of garment factories. The associations of architects and engineers can work together in this respect.
The roundtable meeting was moderated by Prothom Alo assistant editor Feroz Choudhury.