WASHINGTON — The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is pushing forward and making progress on safety remediation in the garment industry despite two recent terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 23 people and sparked fears among apparel brands, its country director said Tuesday.
“Despite the unspeakable tragedies, the Alliance and its member companies will continue to stay the course, because improving safety for the millions of men and women who make a living in Bangladesh’s garment sector is a moral imperative,” said James Moriarty, Alliance country director, who briefed reporters from Dhaka on a second quarterly safety progress report.
The Alliance — made up of 28 mainly U.S. firms, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Gap Inc. and VF Corp. — was formed in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, which claimed the lives of 1,133 workers and injured more than 2,000, along with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, comprised of 200 mostly European companies with two global unions, IndustriALL and UNI Global Union.
Concern and fear has spread in Bangladesh in the wake of a terrorist attack in Dhaka that killed 20 hostages, followed by a bombing that killed three people just outside of the city.
Moriarty said many brands and retailers have Bangladeshi or South Asian personnel on the ground in Dhaka, who continue to operate, but he acknowledged that some buying teams from the U.S. and other countries are not traveling to the country in light of security concerns.
The State Department issued two travel warnings in the past week, advising Americans to “carefully consider the risks of traveling there” and authorizing the voluntary departure of family members of U.S. government personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh.
“The U.S. government assesses that the terrorist threat is real and credible,” the agency warned.
“What we are seeing, to some degree, is a lot of major brands holding off unnecessary travel, or implementing a travel ban for external personnel coming into Bangladesh at this point in time,” Moriarty said. “I am not aware of anybody withdrawing personnel from Bangladesh, nor aware of anybody canceling contracts. I think there is an inclination to do business in Bangladesh. It is an important player.”
Asked if he was concerned about long-term damage to Bangladesh’s image and economy from the attacks, Moriarty said he believes if there is effective action taken quickly, the long-term impact will be limited.
“If things worsen, then the country will be in for a rough time,” he said. “There is a lot of anger in Bangladesh about what happened. People think this is not the way Bangladeshis behave. This is non-Bangladesh, non-Islamic. That gives me hope. There is really a revulsion to what happened with the two attacks.”
The Alliance, now at the halfway point of its five-year initiative, performs independent inspections on the structural, electrical and fire-safety aspects of all factories from which its members source.
Factories receive corrective action plans aimed at helping address safety issues and achieving compliance with the Alliance’s safety standards. The group also provides technical advice and access to low-cost loans to assist factories with remediation. It said it is on track to remediate all critical safety issues in its active factories by 2018.
Moriarty gave a quarterly progress report, noting there have been several “positive developments” related to factory safety improvements.
He said 28 factories to date have completed corrective action plans, an increase of 17 percent since the previous update, in April. The Alliance’s member companies currently source from about 677 factories in Bangladesh.
“Across all factories, more than one-third of issues most critical to life safety have already been addressed, two years ahead of the deadline,” he said.
Six additional factories have been suspended since the first quarter, bringing the total to 83, as previously reported.
“Make no mistake — our work is achieving the big-picture goal of driving consolidation in the [ready-made garment] industry in Bangladesh into safer factories,” he said. “What we are seeing is safe factories replacing more dangerous ones and, frankly, hiring most of the workers that are coming out of the factories that exist already.”
Moriarty said he did not have an exact number of factories that have closed permanently, but said there is a mix of results from the suspensions, including factory owners closing down facilities that cannot be remediated and opening new ones.
The Alliance has also changed and updated how it evaluates factory progress on remediation, after coordinating with stakeholders, he added.
“With this new approach, we avoid penalizing factories that are making steady progress but may be stalled in some areas due to circumstances they cannot control, like delays in importing necessary equipment,” Moriarty said. “It allows us to encourage factories to fast-track remediation issues most critical to life safety rather than concentrate on relatively simple, not-as-critical fixes.”
The Alliance is also in the process of providing retraining to some 1.2 million workers trained on fire safety and providing “refresher” courses to about 600,000 workers. In addition, 22,000 security guards working in Alliance factories have received safety training.
“We’ve also provided financial compensation to nearly 7,000 workers displaced by remediation, fulfilling 100 percent of the requests by factory owners and helping workers provide for themselves and their families despite temporary closures,” he added.
The group has completed training for democratically elected worker-safety committees at 34 factories and expects to launch training at 60 more factories in the next few months.
As for the end of the five-year Alliance commitment in mid-2018, he said there are discussions under way for a transition and noted, “We have gotten to a point where our member companies really are sourcing from substantially safer factories.”