A roundtable on ‘Safe work environment for garment industry workers and impact of climate change’ was organised on 15 November at the Prothom Alo office. Organised by Prothom Alo, the roundtable was supported by Griffith University (Australia), BMT, University of Sydney, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) and Wellcome.
Md Mujibul Haque MP, chairperson, parliamentary standing committee of the labour and employment ministry
Shahidullah Azim, vice president, BGMEA
Mohammad Hatem, executive president, BKMA
China Rahman, president, Federation of Garments Workers
AKM Masum Ul Alam, programme officer, RMG-2, ILO
Tania Haque, professor, Department of Women and Gender Studies, Dhaka University
Ashikur Rahman Joardar, Department of Architecture, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET)
Fahmida Tofail, Nutrition and Clinical Services Division, icddr,b
Md Hafizur Rahman, chairperson, occupation safety, IEB
Naziur Rahman, Sustainability Secretary, Bangladesh Architects Institute
Fahim Tonmoy, associate principal engineer, BMT and adjunct research fellow, Griffith University, Australia
Anisul Hoque, associate editor, Prothom Alo
Moderator: Firoz Choudhury, assistant editor, Prothom Alo
Over 4 million people work in the readymade garment sector, most of whom are women. Two thirds of the export income comes from this sector. This sector is considered to be a milestone in women’s empowerment. Today’s discussion will basically focus on the impact of climate change and global warming on the workers of this sector.
The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) of Griffith University in Australia, BMT, University of Sydney and BUET, has concluded a three-year research project on the impact of heat stress due to excessive temperatures on Bangladesh's readymade garment (RMG) factory workers. The UK-based Wellcome funded the research.
We are aware that Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. If impacts of climate change such as extreme heat affects the health and productivity of the garment workers, that will cause significant damage to Bangladesh’s economy. That is why this research looked into climate change and the garment industry together.
Heat stress is a significant impact of climate change. In Bangladesh, currently there are two to three months where temperature is extremely hot. . Due to climate change, there are apprehensions that after 20 to 25 years, the excessive heat will prevail for five to seven months. In our research we tried to ascertain how the health and productivity of the workers would be affected in factories which have no air conditioning. My colleagues in Australia will join us online to present a summary of the research.
Jean Palutikof, Professor of Climate Science, Griffith University; Ollie Jay, Heat and Health, University of Sydney; Aaron Bach, post-doctoral research fellow, University of Sydney; Farzana Yeasmin, PhD researcher, Griffith University (online)
Conditions are already unpleasantly hot for workers in non-air-conditioned factories for much of the year and the situation will only worsen in future as a result of global warming. A worker’s natural defence against thermal discomfort and heat stress is to slow down, which can affect wages and productivity. The ILO estimates that the Bangladesh manufacturing sector currently loses 2.59% working hours due to heat stress/thermal discomfort, rising to 4.96% in 2030 because of climate change (ILO 2019 Working on a Warmer Planet). If the RMG industry comes to rely heavily on air-conditioning in future for cooling, this will increase Bangladesh emissions of greenhouse gases, since electricity is almost exclusively generated from fossil fuels.
The purpose of our project was to identify passive cooling strategies that would be effective now and in the future, and would not add to the burden of greenhouse gas emissions. Using a computer-based factory building model, NCCARF looked at three strategies: a green roof, a white roof and additional shading. We found that, in the hot months, these strategies reduce temperatures by around 2 degrees. Looking at a heat index that combines both temperature and humidity, the shaded roof is shown to perform the best among the three strategies. All strategies deliver temperature reductions in future, but by 2050 they are unlikely to be sufficient alone. Further work is required to understand the feasibility of these strategies in terms of costs, lifespan and maintenance requirements.
Using temperature and humidity data collected with 65 sensors distributed across a participating ready-made garment factory in Dhaka over ~18 months, the most severe internal environmental conditions that workers are exposed to, were identified (40˚C, 38% relative humidity). Our research team in the Heat and Health Research Incubator at the University of Sydney, then recreated these conditions in a state-of-the-art climate chamber, and simulated other aspects of the work environment, including work tasks such as ironing and sewing. Human participants then carry out these tasks over a ~3-h period in the chamber on six separate occasions – each time testing how well a different cooling strategy reduces worker body temperature, dehydration, the amount of work the heart needs to do to maintain blood pressure, and thermal discomfort.
Approaches assessed include the use of electric fans with and without a supplemental hydration regime, and a green roof with and without accompanying electric fans. These interventions have been compared to a worst-case scenario (current conditions) and a best-case scenario (air-conditioning). Preliminary findings indicate that electric fan-use with frequent opportunities to drink water are the most effective strategy for reducing worker heat stress and discomfort. Importantly, while short breaks in work are required to drink water, no overall reductions in sewing or ironing task performance were observed, as any lost work time was recovered by higher work rates due to a lower worker heat stress.
As a part of my PhD research, I have conducted a small qualitative study which highlights heat-health-productivity issues and explores heat management through the eyes of workers, managers and other sector stakeholders. This exploratory study identified that workers and health professionals attribute symptoms like headaches, dizziness, fatigue and nausea to heat, particularly during summer months and during the middle of the working day, and that heat was considered an important influence on productivity by workers themselves and others working in or with the sector. Factory health professionals also observed blood pressure issues and other informants identified higher absenteeism in summer. Thirst was commonly reported by workers and the value of hydration as a health protection action appeared to be widely promoted and supported by factory managers and health staff and acknowledged by workers. However, water drinking habits were highly influenced by workload pressures.
AKM Masum Ul Alam
Due to excessively high temperatures, by the year 2030 our total working hours will fall by 2 per cent which can lead to a reduction of productivity by 5 per cent. Currently, the productivity of Bangladesh falls behind other countries who are competing in the garment industry . Increased temperature is basically an occupational hazard. The research carried out to identify this hazard certainly demands further discussion in the future.
If we look at the policy making level, we have health and safety regulations. There are regulations regarding the environment and factories too. These regulations need to be examined to see how the issue of indoor temperature in factories has been dealt with. If there are any flaws, then these need to be reviewed. Issues pertaining to availability of clean drinking water, sufficient light and air in factories should also be reviewed . Legal factors must be adjusted with the issues raised in this research. BGMEA and BKMEA authorities can work on this. Technological investments must also be considered. There needs to be study on the possible impact of higher temperatures on the behaviour of the workers. ILO is working on this. Above all, the government, the owners and everyone needs to look into how these works can be carried out in coordination with the workers.
Climate change, labour rights, women’s rights are all interconnected. When any problem arises, the workers are the first ones to bear the brunt. We have to understand where we are now and where we are headed. When constructing a factory building, the perspective of the workers must be taken into consideration. Those working in very good factories spend much of their time working in air-conditioned facilities. But after work, it’s a different world out there. Work must be done on the workers’ accommodation facilities too.
There is talk of women’s empowerment. Why is the number of women workers decreasing in the garment sector? I have been speaking about this for quite a few months now. Among many reasons, heat is one. Excessive heat is steadily weakening them. They are losing their efficiency. Many of them simply have no alternative but to leave their jobs.
When factory buildings are constructed, safety and other factors are taken into consideration, but not much attention is paid to the health of workers . The workers' health and wellbeing must be taken into consideration. It is not enough just to highlight the workers of highly developed factories. I will request the authorities to also think about factories which do not have good working conditions.
Md Hafizur Rahman
Where the sampling is done or data collected in the research is important. If it is only collected in Dhaka, it must be kept in mind that Dhaka’s environment is very different from the environment outside of Dhaka. Another factor is once the Metro Rail starts up, there will be a huge change within Dhaka over the next three or four years. Now hundreds of buses come in from Gazipur and all over, spewing out toxic smoke. As a result, Dhaka’s temperature rises. Metro Rail runs on electricity and the use of electricity hardly causes any damage at all.
I would hope that the changes that Dhaka city will undergo over the next five years, the temperature will not increase at the present rate. If we want to expand the garment industry, we should select areas in Bangladesh where the impact of climate change is less. All sorts of proposals are being made to save electricity. There have been cautions to cut down on carbon emissions. These matters are very important.
Architects are trained in how to design environmentally-friendly sustainable buildings. If an architect is used to designing a factory building, there shouldn’t be any problems. Electricity cost is also an important matter for factories. Electricity costs can be reduced, firstly, using appropriate equipment or machinery and secondly, with appropriate building design (lighting and ventilation). So, in constructing a building for a garments factory, the services of an architect must definitely be utilised. BGMEA and BKMEA can work better with the department of architecture in this regard. Knowledge sharing is important. Many factory owners want to do a good factory design, but not necessarily they have technical skills for this, therefore they should seek help from architects. .
Renewable energy has also become relevant for garment factories. Attention must be paid there too. We have seen that the owners of many factories are now eager to work with renewable energy. They can benefit from this in the end.
Most of the women workers in the garment industry have come from the populace beneath the poverty line. They have increased earnings, but they still lack health awareness. They neglect their own meals and nutrition. They suffer from malnutrition. Anaemia, muscle aches, dizziness are common ailments among them. All this is related to increased temperatures.
There has been a lot of work and research about the problems of women working in the garment factories. But I have not come across any work dealing with increased temperatures. This is a very serious problem. You will notice that women in the garment sector begin work from when they are 14 or 15. Then they can go on to work up till the age of 30 to 35 at the most. After that, they somehow or the other lose their capacity to work. As a result, they become a sort of burden on society. Simple investment can bring down temperatures. This problem is going to take on serious proportions in the coming days. It is important to work on this. This will decrease our risks and increase work capacity.
The garments industry in Bangladesh is a sector where 80 per cent of the workers are women, though the participation of women in the labour market of all sectors combined is around 36 per cent.
Women face two types of challenges. One is as a worker, and the other is as a woman. Climate change is exacerbating these challenges. There is concern about the workplace and I am even more concerned about their reaching the workplace. The route to work is a virtual battleground for women. They are harassed in all sorts of ways. Public transport has become a major area where women face sexual abuse. Alongside physical harassment, verbal harassment is huge. After all this, the women reach their workplace and there they face all sorts of challenges too. They have a huge contribution in production, but are not given that recognition. Again, in the case of the women workers, one must keep in mind that they are not all the same. Some are married, some unmarried, some are pregnant, and are disabled and so on. All these must be taken into cognizance when drawing up the rules and regulations. Temperature is not conducive to women for various reasons and so a woman loses her work capacity in increased temperatures and the factory loses its productivity. That is why long-term planning must be taken up to keep temperatures at a tolerable level in the factories.
Ashikur Rahman Joarder
I have been working with the garments industry for over 25 years. For all these years I have been hearing about young people working in the industry. That would mean by now we should be having matured and experienced workers. But the experienced workers are no longer able to work. According to another study, they work amid serious health risks. It is not possible to work for long in such an environment.
In 2013, I worked with BUET, funded by ILO, on an assessment of the building safety of all garment factories. The factories which we identified as risky, were closed down. There were no more incidents like the Rana Plaza incident after that. The matter of electricity is also important. Attention must be given to that. Even 25 years ago we would see hundreds of lights on in the garment factories. In 2022 it is the same. These lights use up 30 per cent of the electricity while machinery uses 45 per cent. If there is an arrangement for natural light, electricity costs could be slashed. It has become common now to have air conditioning in factories for which the owners spend 74 per cent on electricity. Costs go up. Buildings must be designed with arrangements for natural light to enter the factories.
Will the lives of workers automatically improve just if the environment within the factories is improved or temperatures are decreased? A worker spends 14 hours outside of the factory. What about that?
The UN Trade Centre publication says Bangladesh has the most safe and green garment factories in the world. After the 2013 Rana Plaza accident, Disneyland left but now they are back. We suffered from an image crisis after the Rana Plaza incident, but that was also a turning point for us. The work environment of our factories is now quite good. The entrepreneurs are ready to face any challenge. We want advice on how to improve the factories further.
In the present circumstances, we do not have adequate gas supply, electricity. Yet even in these circumstances, our exports are satisfactory. Despite all these adverse conditions, we have turned around. We have reached a point where we can turn down foreign buyers. The problems in China and Vietnam have opened doors for us.
We have a 30 to 35 work deficit at present. We are unable to deliver in time the orders we have in hand. Some buyers are taking the shipments but not giving the payment. Then again, in some cases the product is ready, but they are not taking the shipment. The schedules till December have been pushed back by the buyers by six months. So we are facing challenges. But we are endeavouring to go ahead. We welcome all recommendations to keep the factories worker-friendly.
You will be pleased to know that 8 of the 10 best factories of the world are in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has the record highest number of green factories. Also, of the 100 platinum factories in the world, 49 are in Bangladesh. These factories did not spring up overnight. We have to build these up ourselves. We changed many things along with the times. The Accord Alliance survey says 82 to 98 per cent of our country’s factories are in the compliance category. There is no alternative to workplace safety, safety of the workers. This is a must. This is not just in personal interests, but in the interests of our business too.
The proposal to reduce temperature by natural means rather than the use of air conditioning is a good suggestion. The roof top and shading can be applied. This should not cost that much. Bangladesh is among the countries where the economy and living standards will be most affected by climate change. Work capacity will certainly fall if temperatures rise. Our workers will fall ill. That is our loss. We will certainly now think about heat. We want proposals on how to improve, keeping the factories where they are. We have to keep an eye on heat stress and energy efficiency in our factories. Everyone must work together here. We cannot implement this alone. We need technological support. I feel we need to have a joint workshop with all concerned in this regard.
Md Mujibul Haque MP
The entire world is facing the impact of climate change. The climate or environment that we saw in our childhood is changing. We are adjusting to this change. It was during the crisis of 2014 that I took charge of the labour and employment ministry. Many of the countries where we would export garments, had turned away. At the time, a group of us attended a meeting in Berlin, Germany, between buyers and workers. We managed to explain things to them then and the buyers returned to Bangladesh.
You all speak about how to improve the environment of the factories, but no one speaks of how to increase prices. How will our businessmen made a profit then? Where will they pay the workers from? How will they improve the factories? According to a BBC survey, there are 50 million people unemployed at present in Bangladesh. Many people are employed in the garment factories. We have to take the entire situation into consideration.
We have not long been familiar with words like heat stress, building safety and so on. We are now understanding these matters, discussing, changes are taking place, more will take place soon. I thank the researchers for the work on heat stress. I will request the BGMEA and BKMEA authorities to have a pilot project in this regard. A factory can be used to see if these systems work and if it is financially feasible too. If it is profitable, the owners themselves will take up these systems. They will tackle climate change in their own interests.
We have had this discussion on a very important issue together with so many institutions here. We certainly will want the experts to carry out their research and focus on our problems. We will want those who take the political decisions, to use this to give us guidelines. The factory owners will make good buildings. We must also ensure that when the workers go home, they have a good environment there too. We are hopeful that with everyone’s concerted efforts, our garment sector will be even more prosperous in the days ahead. On behalf of Prothom Alo, I thank all for their participation in the discussions.
Attention must be paid to heat stress and energy efficiency in the factories.
Consideration must be given to natural ways to reduce temperatures rather than air conditioning.
A pilot project on heat stress must be started immediately.
Architects must be included in the construction of garment factories.
Heat is not conducive to women’s bodies. Increased temperatures reduce women’s work capacity and attention must be paid to this.
All factories must be conscious about the use of electricity.
There needs to be studies to determine why the number of women workers are decreasing in the garment sector.
Outside of the factories, attention must be paid to the accommodation of the workers too.
Long-term measures must be adopted regarding the impact of rising temperatures
Concerted efforts of all concerned are imperative for the improvement of the garment sector.