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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Almost a year after the Rana Plaza collapse, the Bangladesh apparel industry seems to be on the bumpy road to reform.
With two initiatives being implemented to ensure building and fire safety integrity in the country’s factories, the international brands, including some of the biggest names in retail, appear to be greatly invested in improving conditions in the garment industry.
But these efforts will face uphill battles in this politically fractious country, which was ranked 136 out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year, making it one of the most corrupt governments in the world.
Pressure has grown on the Bangladeshi industry following the tragedy at Rana Plaza last April and, six months before that, the fire at Tazreen Fashions. The two disasters killed more than 1,200 people.
Figures obtained from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association show that the sector has continued to grow despite the accidents, amassing more than $23.5 billion in exports in 2013, a 13 percent increase from the previous year.
In a three-decade-old apparel industry that had escaped scrutiny despite being a manufacturing base for major international brands, these two tragedies galvanized the global community into action. Led by IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh brought together 150 mostly European retailers, including Hennes & Mauritz and Marks & Spencer, to a legally binding agreement to make sure the Bangladeshi factories where they source are compliant with fire and building safety regulations. Another coalition with similar goals, known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, was also formed, comprised of North American companies such as Gap Inc., VF Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., unable to accept the accord’s legally restrictive language.
The two international initiatives will carry out inspections of about half of Bangladesh’s more than 4,000 factories. Remaining factories will be inspected under the government’s national action plan and that of the International Labor Organization.
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For the accord’s Rob Wayss, executive director of its operations in Bangladesh, political turmoil is the main obstacle stopping the initiative from completing its inspections. For example, he explained in an interview, inspectors faced many problems in December due to political blockades, also known as hartels, which shut down parts of the city.
“It’s unpredictable. The issue for us is if there are hartels and blockades,” said Wayss, who has worked in Bangladesh for many years at the ILO and the Solidarity Center, an international labor organization associated with the AFL-CIO. “There was also a fair amount of violence associated and the question became, can you responsibly send engineers out on these days to do [the inspections].”
But Wayss remains confident about the accord’s ability to ensure thorough inspections of about 1,800 factories, if only because of the legally binding nature of the agreement.
“It’s not a choice,” he said. “The brands that have signed the accord have agreed that if they don’t do it, the other signatories can file a complaint against it. It’s unprecedented.”
So far, the accord has completed inspections of 50 factories, and Wayss said last week it is on track with its current timeline and should be done with the majority of inspections by September.
Ellen Tauscher, chair of the alliance’s board, was equally adamant that the challenges facing her initiative would be of the political nature, though her reservations were more wide-ranging. The former congresswoman, whose first visit to Bangladesh was in September, pointed at the need to work with the more labor-friendly accord.
In recent months, the alliance has faced criticism for not having labor representation or any binding commitments by its members to continue sourcing from the country after two years.
“We need alignment from the people who are our competitors,” Tauscher said by phone from California. “We need factory owners to decide to make investments for safety as opposed to just profit, and we need to be able to empower and educate factory workers.
“The other issue is that, as Americans sourcing out of Bangladesh, we can’t want safety in the factories more than the Bangladeshis do,” she added. “And that’s why there needs to be a sense of commitment, sustainability, enforcement of their own laws and investment.”
According to its six-month report, the alliance has completed inspections of 200 factories, putting it on track to wrapping up the inspections for the 700 from which its members source by July.
At the same time, some members of the alliance are supplementing its inspection program with initiatives of their own. VF Corp. last week unveiled a “third way” of working with suppliers in the country under which it is building a factory for The Rising Group that would completely meet VF’s specifications for safety.
Badiul Alam Majumdar, general secretary of local organization Citizens for Good Governance, believes that the brands have a duty with these reforms, since they played a role in keeping Bangladesh a low-cost manufacturing base by constantly slashing prices to keep their profit margins high. But the government and the manufacturers are also to blame for a sector that was largely unregulated, he said. After all, the deaths from the two industrial disasters resulted from inept and corrupt government oversight — the Tazreen factory had no emergency exits and had lost its safety certificate months before the blaze, and the Rana Plaza building was structurally unsafe due to the illegal construction of extra floors.
“In our country, a lot of manufacturers and garment industry owners are part of the legislature,” Majumdar said. “In the last Parliament, about 30 parliamentarians were direct owners of garment factories and the others had indirect connections. Almost all the decisions are made in their interests.”
How successful these initiatives are will depend primarily on the government’s “intention and willingness,” he said, adding that the concerned ministries and the BGMEA must step up.
“If we don’t do our part, it might create dependence,” Majumdar said. “There must be a sense of urgency on our own part, on the government and on BGMEA.”
His organization is part of a Bangladeshi coalition known as Center for Policy Dialogue, which will be monitoring the implementation of all fire and building safety initiatives.
Another aspect that needs monitoring is how both initiatives will help with factory remediation, said Sarah Labowitz, codirector for New York University’s Center for Business and Human Rights. The alliance and accord have said factory owners who need to correct elements in their factories post-inspection may seek financial assistance from the initiatives.
Labowitz is a coauthor of a submission that called for greater government and infrastructure oversight to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which last month convened a hearing to assess both initiatives’ efforts and the situation on the ground.
“Bangladesh consistently ranks near the bottom of measures of good governance and corruption is a concern across the board,” Labowitz said. “Both the accord and the alliance need to provide greater clarity about the details of how factory repairs will be financed and the oversight mechanisms for these financing arrangements.”
With both initiatives scheduled to end in 2018, Alonzo Suson, country director for the Solidarity Center, is more concerned about the government’s ability and willingness to take over the reins.
“Sometimes, we forget what the role of the government [is], which is to protect the safety of its citizens, to provide a better workplace,” Suson said. “And we just look at the owners or the brands and we forget the government’s role. My worry is what happens after five years.”