Garment factory renovations not completed even after 10 yrs

In this photograph taken on 24 April 2013, Bangladeshi civilian volunteers assist in rescue operations after an eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of DhakaAFP

A decade has passed since Rana Plaza collapsed. However, renovation of the apparel factories has not been finished yet. The slack in this work started after the alliances, formed at the initiative of European buyers, left Bangladesh.

Accord, an alliance formed at the initiative of European buyers, left Bangladesh in June 2020. Since then, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), a local initiative, has been monitoring the inspections and renovation of apparel factories. However, the organisation has been slow in its work right from the beginning. There are a total of 1,823 apparel factories under this organisation at the moment. Of these, some 504 factories have completed all sorts of renovations they needed as of February, 2023.

The Rana Plaza collapse is considered the biggest industrial accident of the country. As many as 1,138 workers from five factories in the Rana Plaza were killed in the incident on 24 April, 2013. Many were crippled as well.

A total of three cases were lodged over the incident. However, there are little headways in the trials of these cases.

However, the owners of export oriented apparel companies have placed stress on setting up environment–friendly factories following the Rana Plaza collapse. The number of environment-friendly factories in the country now stands at 195. A policy regarding garment manufacturing through subcontract has been drawn up. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has imposed strict provisions for recruiting new members.

A number of factories have moved out of the rented flats in the city. Most of these factories have safety committees. In the meantime, the government amended the labour law twice.

Overall, the work environment and safety issues have improved a lot in the readymade garment (RMG) sector as compared to the days prior to the Rana Plaza incident. There has been no major accident in the apparel factories in these years either.

However, the people concerned say to ensure a proper work-environment and other safety issues of the workers, renovation must be completed in order to maintain the image of the country’s RMG sector.

The local market-oriented factories should also be brought under supervision and renovation too. There will be risk of massive casualties in case of accidents in the factories outside the monitoring. Such an incident would tarnish the image of the country’s RMG sector.

Regarding the slow pace of renovation, BGMEA president Faruque Hassan said, “The renovating the safety flaws in the factories is an ongoing process. We have already made massive improvements. We need to improve further."

He added, “There are no major safety issues in any of the factories under monitoring. We have succeeded in persuading the concerned quarters that safety should be ensured at the workplaces for the benefit of both the owners and the workers.”

Results of the three initiatives

Following the European buyers, the buyers of North America also formed an organisation named “Alliance”. Besides, the National Tripartite Plan of Action (NTPA) was taken up at the initiative of the local authorities. These three initiatives aimed at detecting the infrastructural, electrical and fire safety-related flaws in the factories and fixing them.

Accord was founded in 2013 for five years. After years of complications, the Accord handed over its activity to the RSC in 2020 and left the country. Accord said at the time some 92 per cent of the renovation work at 1,629 factories under their supervision had been completed. The remaining 8 per cent work included several significant renovations. For instance, there was no fire alarm and detection system in some 1,333 factories at the time the members of Accord left the country in 2020.

According to the progress report of RSC for the month of February, 2023, the overall renovation work has been completed by 91 per cent in some 1,692 factories out of 1823 factories under their jurisdiction. Some 503 factories have fixed all sorts of flaws they had. Renovation work in the remaining of the factories has not been finished yet. Besides, initial inspection to some 131 factories is yet to be conducted.

When asked, RSC co-chairman Amirul Haque told Prothom Alo, “The pace of RSC’s works is a bit slower. Efforts are on to expedite this. Now the factories are being inspected on a regular basis.”

Asked whether the RSC can work independently or not, he said, “Although there was interference from the owners in the beginning, this has been overcome. The organisation is conducting its operations independently at the moment.”

Alliance, an initiative of the North American buyers, left Bangladesh on 31 December 2018. It said at the time that 90 per cent of the factories under their jurisdiction had completed all the renovation works. After the Alliance left the country, an organisation named ‘Nirapan’ was formed to monitor the factories. However, it doesn’t exist anymore. Now it is not even monitored centrally whether the renovation work undertaken at the initiative of the Alliance are finished or not.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, an expert on labour in the South Asian region, said, “It has been observed, whenever there is pressure from the foreign countries on the apparel sector of the country, there is progress. And when there is no pressure, people concerned do not take anything as mandatory. This is what happened in case of renovation of garment factories in the country."

The initiative to inspect the factories outside the Accord and Alliance (members of BGMEA and BKMEA) was taken under the NTAP. The government, owners and the ILO jointly took the initiative. There were some 1,549 factories under its jurisdiction.

A large number of these factories has been relocated outside of the city or has been closed down. The renovation work in the remaining of the factories has been going on at a slow pace since the beginning. It now has 666 factories under its jurisdiction. None of these factories has completed the renovation work.

The factories under the NTAP were inspected under a project named the Renovation Coordination Cell (RCC). The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) implemented the project. The project deadline ended in December, 2021. Now, the DIFE is trying to accomplish the project by forming a new body named ‘Industry Safety Unit’.

A DIFE official, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo, “Only 33 of the factories under the DIFE have completed all sorts of renovations. Actions have taken against 10 factories in the last one year due to their reluctance in renovation works.

Industries outside inspection

There are many factories outside the jurisdiction of the RSC and Industry Safety Unit. These are not the members of the BGMEA or the BKMEA either. The actual number of this sort of garment factory is not confirmed either. It has not been possible yet to bring these factories under inspection or monitoring.

However, according to the sources in the RSC, the directorial body of the RSC had taken a decision in principle to bring these sub-contracting factories under their monitoring activities. They also decided to monitor factories, which do not produce branded products.

Speaking regarding this, Centre for Policy Dialogue’s research director Khandker Golam Moazzem told Prothom Alo, “The country’s apparel sector cannot go far with the progress made in terms of renovation of apparel factories in the country in the last decade. Therefore, all the factories should be brought under an integrated initiative. And the authority of that initiative must be powerful. Their activities should be fair as well.”

*This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu