WASHINGTON — A new academic critique released Thursday accused New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights of making a “series of errors” in its recent analysis of the Bangladesh garment industry and “greatly overestimating” the number of formal factories and the size of the workforce.
The critique, released by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Colorado, took direct aim at the Stern Center’s report, “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s Forgotten Apparel Workers,” released in December. The Stern Center report claimed that millions of garment workers in subcontracting factories in Bangladesh are not covered by safety programs.
Two industry consortia were launched in the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that claimed 1,133 lives in April 2013 and a fire a few months earlier at Tazreen Fashion fire that killed 112 garment workers.
Those tragedies sparked a global outcry and led to the launch of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and a five-year plan to inspect and remediate thousands of garment factories that companies use in Bangladesh.
The Stern Center’s report, said to be based on an analysis of publicly available factory information in Bangladesh, as well as an on-the-ground survey of two subdistricts in Dhaka, claimed the size of the garment industry is much greater than has been reported. It listed more than 7,000 factories, which is almost double the estimate of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, and more than 5.1 million workers, which is more than one million above current industry figures.
Stern used those numbers to suggest that millions of workers are not covered by safety programs and brought the issue of subcontracting into sharp focus, describing subcontractor factories as “in the shadows.”
The BGMEA estimates there are about 3,500 factories in Bangladesh, The same figure is cited by the International Labor Organization and the Bangladesh government. The industry estimated number of workers is 4 million.
In the new pointed critique, “The Bulk of the Iceberg: A Critique of the Stern Center’s Report on Worker Safety,” researchers charged that the Stern report is flawed.
“The accuracy of the Stern Report’s claims are significant because, if correct, there needs to be a fundamental rethinking of existing efforts, and a reallocation of resources to address the massive number of workers that the report claims are not covered by any existing safety program,” the researchers said. “On the other hand, if these claims are not substantiated, they run the risk of diverting attention away from ongoing efforts to advance worker safety in Bangladesh by strengthening and more fully implementing the initiatives that are already underway.”
The researchers said they found, contrary to Stern’s findings, that most garment workers are covered by inspection and safety programs in Bangladesh.
“Our overall conclusion is that the data presented in the Stern Report do not substantiate the authors’ claims about the number of factories, the size of the RMG workforce, and the scope of the existing inspection programs,” the report said.
The authors of the new report — Mark Anner, an associate professor of Labor Studies and Political Science at Penn State and director of the University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights, and Jennifer Bair, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said they uncovered “numerous” errors in Stern’s report, including the “inclusion of large numbers of closed factories on Stern’s list of ‘current’ factories, data-entry mistakes and inaccurate calculations, among others.”
The researchers said they found the Stern report based the estimate of 5.1 million garment workers in Bangladesh on a “flawed” factory database and erroneously added more than 335,000 workers to that total. They said a “more accurate estimate” of employment is 3.85 million workers and concluded that the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety cover 71.4 percent of workers in the sector. In addition, they faulted Stern with failing to consider workers covered by the National Initiative, an ILO-advised government factory inspection program.
“Taken together, the Accord, Alliance and National Initiative cover nearly 3.42 million workers,” the researchers countered. “This represents 89.1 percent of all workers — a percentage that is more correctly described as the bulk, rather than the tip, of the iceberg.”
Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and coauthor of the report, told WWD that Stern is standing by the report.
“Clearly we’ve touched a nerve,” Labowitz said. “Our research is the result of [two] years of extensive investigation. I’ve been to Bangladesh five times. We’ve spent more than a year analyzing the data. It represents an inconvenient truth.
“The garment sector in Bangladesh is bigger than has previously been accounted for,” she claimed. “The real question is how to fix factories…There are workers that are excluded from the existing programs and the existing strategies for building a safe and sustainable garment sector.”