As the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a consortium of 26 brands and retailers, disclosed the completion of its targeted factory inspections one year after it was formed, factory owners in Dhaka who work for American companies have been heaving a sigh of relief.
Even many of those who have been put on remediation programs to fix fire, electrical or safety features in their factories told WWD that at least the “uncertainty was over.”
“It was a moment many of us dreaded,” said a factory owner who asked not to be named. “Inspection teams coming into our factories, gathering papers, not knowing if that would mean the end of our business. Now that we know what has to be done, it is less frightening. We are willing to make changes and provide worker safety, but not knowing what was happening was frustrating.”
The alliance was formed last year after several accidents at garment factories, as well as the collapse of the eight-floor Rana Plaza building, claimed the lives of more than 1,240 workers over an 18-month period brought global brands and retailers to the table, in an undertaking to address the situation.
Detailing the achievements of the alliance over the last year in a call with Bangladesh reporters on Wednesday, alliance board members Ellen Tauscher, independent chair of the Alliance; Mesbah Rabin, managing director of the alliance in Bangladesh, and Ian Spaulding, senior adviser to the board, highlighted some of the key achievements.
It was apparent that it has been a busy year for the alliance on the ground in Bangladesh, setting up offices, hiring teams, inspections, worker training for fire safety, as well as train-the-trainer programs with a target of reaching a million workers. A major part of the one-year flag was to meet targets to inspect all 567 factories and that with an understanding and acceptance with teams from the Bangladesh Accord for Building and Fire Safety, a consortium of more than 150 brands and retailers, mostly European.
This has been a significant source of tension on the ground.
Spaulding spoke about the issue, which has been proving a major concern to government officials as well as factory owners.
“The information we have received so far is that they have canceled inspections for factories that have undergone inspection by us. And I know there is a recommendation by the chief safety officer of the accord to accept the inspections of the alliance, but I don’t know if after the final governance process there has been a decision on that. We are hopeful,” he said.
Clarifying the position by the alliance, he said, “We accept the accord reports, as long as the reports are publicly available and our members and the alliance have access to it so that we can support remediation based on that inspection report. Our hope is that there is the same kind of reciprocity.”
On the ground, the alliance appears to have won the goodwill of government leaders as well as many employers.
“The alliance is cordial and sympathetic,” said commerce minister Tofail Ahmed. “They are doing a very good job because even if factories are closed and workers become jobless they are sharing the burden of the wages. Between the accord and alliance, there is some misunderstanding. We have to stop that,” referring primarily to the issue of factory inspections.
Of the 567 factories now noted as completed, 10 have been shut down.
“It has shown that not as many of our factories are bad,” Ahmed observed.
Despite the fact that only 10 factories have been closed, others have long lists of structural, fire or electrical safety features that need addressing, and a long list of financial investment necessary to do so, factory owners said. While the larger factories have funds to do this, it is the small and medium factories that fear that they will be squeezed out of business and are still hoping that the alliance — on behalf of retailers and brands — will make those funds available.
However, the alliance did win the support of factory owners by putting forward an undertaking to pay wages to workers of the factories that have been shut down, earlier having pledged 50 percent wage payment for the first two months, and in June, changing this to a period of four months.
They have also kept local sentiments in mind in other ways.
“All findings from our inspections are shown to the labor leaders in the local language at the close of the inspections,” said Rabin. “We have launched a help line so that workers can anonymously report concerns without fear of retaliation.
“As you know, our training has to reach workers with low literacy levels. We have used interactive techniques that can achieve this, and the training has set new standards for the work force. It is critical that workers and labor leaders are a part of the process,” he said.
As former congresswoman Tauscher pointed out, the work will continue over the next four years.
Spaulding added the specifics of what would come next.
“For the next few years, we are really focused on remediation,” he said, explaining that the strategy for driving remediation meant “coming up with a concrete plan and monitoring each factory’s progress on a monthly basis and following the corrective action plan.
“Each issue has a severity rating and we are working with each factory to address each issue one by one and also keeping in mind that some issues are just going to take a little more time,” he said.
Factory owners said that even as the remediation process was under way, they were hopeful about the growth of their industry.
This hope is also reflected by the government — based on some absolute growth figures. Ahmed said on Tuesday that exports for Bangladesh were expected to grow to $33.2 billion next year, up from the $30.5 billion this year. With the garment industry in Bangladesh making up 81 percent of total exports, it means a higher projection for the garment industry as well, for which he set a $27 billion target for 2014-15.
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