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ILO Formulates Plan for Worker Safety as Rana Plaza Death Toll Increases

Sunday afternoon at Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh, police officials took another body count, with the total now reaching more than 620.

The death toll continues to rise.

This story first appeared in the May 6, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Late Sunday afternoon at Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh, police officials took another body count, with the total now reaching more than 620 by their estimates. An official said that, more than 10 days after the tragic collapse of the eight-story building that housed five garment factories, it was becoming impossible to identify the bodies. The victims’ clothes were not indicative at this point and hopeful relatives had little to go by in terms of closure, with eight more bodies being pulled out of the rubble Sunday morning.

Garment workers across the city — having spent several days after the tragedy venting their anger and protesting against the authorities — returned to work last Thursday, a week after the Rana Plaza building collapsed on April 24.

Mohammed Rizwan, a worker at a factory in Ashulia, told WWD that morale is low. “We want more assurances,” he said. “We don’t want to die unceremoniously, buried under blocks of stone and are willing to shout out loud so we can be heard.”

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There is a cacophony of voices in Dhaka. Accusations are being cast by government officials, against government officials, against factory owners, against global brands, and there is a mix of rage and grief amid calls for more government action at all levels — preventive and punitive.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) team that arrived on the scene Wednesday is being viewed as a voice of reason among the conflicting accusations. On Saturday, the ILO team issued a tripartite agreement containing proposals by a combination of government representatives, employers and workers’ rights bodies.

In a joint statement, the three groups appeared to come together to find a solution to the growing controversy over worker safety in Bangladesh’s textile and apparel industry, the world’s second largest after China. The building collapse at Savar is the worst disaster to hit the sector, which has seen a spate of fires and other disasters in the last six months. The statement Saturday said the three groups “stand united in their resolve to do everything possible to prevent further tragedy.”

Outlining a series of suggested measures, the ILO backed a blueprint for the way forward that includes presenting an amended labor law to parliament next month. This would focus on ensuring several fundamental rights for workers, including freedom of association, collective bargaining and safety and health.

“We need actions, not words,” said Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, the ILO’s deputy director-general for field operations who is heading the organization’s four-member team in Savar. “We must move forward.”

The proposals include government authorities to assess factories for safety — particularly export-oriented apparel factories — which would have to be completed by yearend. The process would include listing the addresses of unsafe factories, he said. The three groups appealed to the ILO to help mobilize the technical and financial resources to conduct this assessment.

Although the government has previously issued similar proposals, the latest ILO-backed statement insists on stricter timelines. For example, Saturday’s statement said the government should recruit 200 additional factory inspectors within the next six months. “Inspection is one thing but the credibility of the inspection is another thing,” Houngbo noted.

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Although Houngbo said that “political will and commitment by all parties was the key to resolve the issues relating to labor safety in Bangladesh,” these very commitments appear challenging in the current political climate.

On Sunday, there was further confusion in Dhaka with a completely unrelated rally that had hundreds of people out in the streets, with all entry and exit points into the city cut off. According to local news reports, Hefajat-e Islami activists set fire to more than 100 shops and at least 20 vehicles.

On Saturday evening, Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition party, gave the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a 48-hour ultimatum to restore a caretaker government leading to elections. After the ultimatum expires today, it is unclear how the different parties might work together. Given the situation, Houngbo’s directive for “political will and commitment by all parties” to solve the worker safety issue may be hard to meet over the next few months.

Houngbo also insisted global brands and foreign governments must play their part in helping reach a solution to the issue. “I want to make a plea to resist the temptation for boycott or sanction,” he said. “We have to keep that away from the situation provided that we act and we act now in the country.”

The 27-nation European Union, which is the largest trading partner for Bangladesh’s apparel industry, raised the possibility of trade sanctions against the country last week. There have been similar calls in the U.S., which is considering whether Bangladesh can continue to receive benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, which lower or eliminate tariffs on some imports.

Brands also are reviewing their sourcing of apparel from Bangladesh in light of the disaster. The Walt Disney Co. will not source any further branded merchandise in Bangladesh as part of a new approach to improve safety standards in its supply chain. Disney will also halt production in four other countries — Ecuador, Venezuela, Belarus and Pakistan — by April 2014.

On Saturday, though, Bangladesh foreign secretary Shahidul Haque noted of the situation, “This is a turning point in the history of Bangladesh. There is a convergence of interest for bringing change in the industry. This is not a time for a blame game.”

Brands and governments have been taking other steps to find a solution, as well as pay compensation to victims of the disaster. Joe Fresh and its parent, Loblaw Cos. of Canada, have called on brands to take steps to improve worker safety in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, according to press reports, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said his office has been in touch with the Obama administration to set up meetings this week. The proposal is reportedly for the EU, the U.S. and Bangladesh to bring together garment makers and workers, unions and retailers to create a plan to improve labor conditions in Bangladesh.

Further details are being released as the investigation into the disaster continues. Mainuddin Khandkar, who heads a government committee that is investigating the situation, said Friday that heavy generators atop the building were turned on after a power outage, and 15 minutes later the building collapsed. “The vibration created by machines and generators operating in the five garment factories contributed first to the cracks and then the collapse,” he said.

This was in addition to the fact that the building did not follow the appropriate building codes and the material used in construction, including rods, cement and bricks, were substandard.

Bangladesh is a country where power outages are common, and many buildings have generators. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has ordered that these must be shifted to the ground floor of every building within the next 30 days.

Government officials insist they have not been tardy in their reaction to the building’s collapse. Nine people have already been arrested, including the owners of the five factories and the owner of Rana Plaza, Mohammed Sahel Rana. Workers have been demanding the death sentence for Rana. According to police officials, cracks were noticed in the building on April 23, the evening before the building collapsed, but more than 3,000 workers were still sent in the next day to begin work as usual.

Police officials arrested an engineer, Abdur Razzak Khan, on Friday, charging him with negligence, even though he had warned about the building’s cracks the day before it collapsed. Both the mayor of Savar, Refayet Ullah, and Kabir Hossain Sardar, the top government administrator at Savar, were suspended on Friday as well. The same day, Bangladesh finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith created an uproar when, on a visit to New Delhi, he said, “The present difficulties…well, I don’t think it is really serious…it’s an accident. And the steps that we have taken in order to make sure that it doesn’t happen, they are quite elaborate and I believe that it will be appreciated by all.”

Other government officials, including Hasina, have said that accidents happen all over the world. But, as Houngbo of the ILO pointed out on Saturday, “We may have issues, we may have disagreements…I do believe there is a sense of urgency. I do believe we have to act now.”