DHAKA, Bangladesh — On the top floor of a 14-story building on Elephant Road here, an animated game-playing session is going on.
Forget the blazing heat outside, felt more severely here than on the floors of the garment factory below. Men sit on one side of the class and women on another, with the name strips on their overalls detailing their jobs: operator, cutting helper, packer man, helper and so on. Although they are used to staying alert on the factory floor, their concentration is even more unwavering as the instructor jokes with them, holds up placards and asks questions.
Three of the workers are called up to the front, and with mock phone calls, they act out what the instructor just told them to alert colleagues, following cheat sheets in Bengali.
“There are many simple things that can save lives,” Nur e Enayat, the trainer at the session, told WWD. “We teach them these things that they never knew or tend to forget very quickly. Sometimes, it is just knowing that opening a window can cause more harm, as the wind blows in and fans the fire.”
The meeting at the Ananta Apparels factory is one part of the new focus in the apparel industry in Bangladesh: worker training.
“We plan to train 1.1 million workers before July 10,” said Mesbah Rabin, managing director of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. “Out of these we have already trained 400,000 workers.”
The alliance is a group of 26 retailers and brands, mostly from North America.
Rabin explained that training sessions are held at the alliance office in Gulshan, after which the trainers return to their jobs at their factories. There, they continue to train workers in batches until everyone in the factory has the required knowledge of fire safety.
The Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety, a binding agreement between 160 brands and retailers, mostly European, is also training workers but has a different focus. “We’re not starting with a fire safety program,” explained Rob Wayss, executive director of Bangladesh operations of the accord. “We’re starting with a program of education about the accord itself, the inspections process and preparing workers for their role in making sure that things at the factory get fixed — and if they’re not getting fixed, making sure they know how to communicate with the accord and whom to communicate with to flag these things with us. So that’s our initial approach.”
This is being done with a series of three videos in the format of public service announcements that will be shown at factories and also at cinemas on the weekends. The actors in the videos are people from the industry who will get some training to play their role.
Wayss said that while the first script had been completed, the production was due to begin soon, starting with educating workers on their rights to help them monitor and keep abreast of a plethora of safety requirements.
Wayss added that a recent workshop with 14 federations was held to identify 15 resource people from the IndustriALL Ready-Made Garment Worker Federations who will train and be able to speak with workers in the field. “This is important so that workers at the factories that are inspected can go through the inspectors’ reports and the corrective action plans again so that they can help monitor that things are getting fixed at the factory, but also create an effective communication link directly to the accord or to the Ready-Made Garment Federations that we work with. This way, our engineers and case handlers can intervene to see if there are problems or if it is just a refusal to fix things,” said Wayss.
While fire safety will be part of their program too, he said that would be farther down the road.
“Our training program when we start doing factory-level and classroom-style training will focus heavily on the safety and health committee, building the capabilities of these and their functioning and monitoring at the factories. There will be factory-level training, but the primary focus will be building the safety and health committees to function. That will include fire training,” he said.
The alliance’s Rabin said that the results from its training program so far were tangible. “It’s a very sustainable program because it involves workers and worker representatives as trainers and factory ambassadors as opposed to just factory management. The questions about whether workers know more today than they did before help you see the results of this training,” he said.
Ian Spaulding, senior adviser to the alliance, observed that there was a real knowledge gap that was being filled, “If you read the workers’ survey that we did in November and December — the largest worker survey done in Bangladesh — we found that workers don’t know what to do in the event of a fire. You’ll be surprised at the number of workers who said when there’s a fire or an emergency, they should get under the table instead of leaving the building. So a basic concept is still an area where there is confusion and these are important training and education issues,” said Spaulding.
At Ananta Apparels, the training session is still on, and senior managers as well as alliance team members stop by for an impromptu check.
“What is your feedback on the training? Will they learn and remember?” an alliance representative asks the general manager.
“Yes, because when their life is at stake they approach the whole topic differently. We realized that things needed some change after Tazreen [Fashions] and Rana Plaza; we have been anxious for it to happen sooner,” said Maj. Mohammed Khorshed Alam Jahangir, Ananta’s general manager of operations, describing the daily sessions of training that were happening on the rooftop, in batches.
It is an achievement, he said, noting that many other changes were happening simultaneously, including adding sprinklers. “It helps remind us every day that the safety of the worker is far more important and compliance issues cannot be ignored,” he said.
Training is happening at many different levels in Dhaka. As factory owners and middle management get schooled in the same concepts, there is room for sharing. There is also a focus on training for inspectors.
“We have a three-year training and a capacity development plan to hand hold the inspectors and build their capacities through a series of measures,” said Srinivas B. Reddy, country director of the International Labor Organization Bangladesh. “This will include a partnership with our international training center in Turin, Italy. They are actually setting up a unit here and conduct training here in Dhaka and taking some of the trainers to Turin,” he noted.
He added a point that all the concerned parties appear to agree on: “We want the training to make sustainable change from within.”