Bangladesh, sustainability

Bangladesh’s ready-made garment export business is booming, and as sourcing reliance on China shifts, the country is seen as “the most interesting destination,” according to McKinsey & Co.’s sustainable sourcing report. But are workplace safety and labor standards up to par?

The country’s export promotion bureau reported nearly $34 billion from exports in the fiscal year ending July 2019, with knitwear and woven garments representing strong growth. Knitwear and woven garments grew 12.3 percent and 12.9 percent to 14.08 billion and 14.41 billion, respectively, in the first 10 months of the current fiscal year.

The distant horrors of 2012 and 2013, with the most notable being the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, killing more than 1,100 garment workers, “triggered a new drive for transparency in the industry,” but it’s not exactly solved.

On Tuesday, a boiler explosion killed a female worker (whose identity has not been confirmed) at Natural Village Sweater Ltd., which employs around 1,800 workers. She worked for neighboring Murad Apparels Ltd., according to a local paper, Dhaka Tribune. Natural Village Sweater Ltd. is said to supply garments for apparel brands H&M and Next.

When WWD reached out to H&M, Kiran Gokathoti, the sustainability manager in Bangladesh, offered the following: “We are deeply sorry to hear about the tragic accident and our thoughts go to those affected. The safety of the workers at our suppliers’ factories is always a top priority for us. The Accord is in charge of the investigation, together with the police authority, to identify the cause of the accident and they have conducted an assessment of the factory.”

The company is in close contact with the Accord team, having met with the supplier to support them in the remediation work. Infrastructure is a challenge facing factories in Bangladesh.

As a Mckinsey report showed, few companies have achieved a radical level of transparency today, but there is heightened urgency to perform both socially and environmentally — all the way down to the fiber level.

Is there truly more cohesion on workplace safety in Bangladesh? The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (signed into effect after Rana Plaza) garnered more than 200 signatures and stood to define a “legacy” while it was in effect. Despite its “convoluted and often-extended history,” as previously reported by WWD, the Accord’s future finally seems clear as it’s absorbed into the Ready-made Sustainability Council (RSC) initiative, which came into formal effect at the end of November.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, governs the RSC alongside the industry, brands and trade unions who are members. The initiative aims to advance industrial relations, skill development and environmental standards.

This week Unilever partnered with the BGMEA while in a separate event Walmart executives met to discuss safety and business potential, which according to the organization, the retailer is responsible for 30 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports.

The Accord was originally set to expire in May 2018 (later extended to May 2019), similar to the now-disbanded Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Then Nirapon came into being, with basically the same working intentions as The Accord, but only really representing the brand and retailer interest (including Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Li & Fung, Walmart Inc., VF Corp, Hudson’s Bay Co., Nordstrom Inc., Target Corp., Macy’s Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Gap Inc. and others) because it wasn’t a regulating body.

With some progress in May, the BGMEA and the Accord signatories signed a Memorandum of Understanding that hoped to mark the “end of this period of tumult and uncertainty,” which would essentially allow the RSC to absorb the infrastructure and staff of the Accord.

As for Nirapon? Just this October, the High Court of Dhaka imposed a six-month ban on the nonprofit, according to the Dhaka Tribune, in an effort to consolidate more support under the RSC.

More attention will come to Bangladesh as its sourcing potential is realized, and with that comes a laser-sharp focus on factory safety, with respect to every single incident.

For More WWD Sustainability News, See:

Update on the Bangladesh Accord — and Its Global Apparel Impact

Retailer Sourcing Dilemma: Leaving China Is Complicated

Five Years After Rana Plaza, Leaders Emphasize Need for Brands to Sign Accord Renewal