The road ahead to completing factory remediation and worker safety in Bangladesh has become more urgent with the turn of the year.
In the first quarterly teleconference of 2017 with the media, James F. Moriarty, country director of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, spoke about the priorities and challenges for this year, with 69 percent of all required repairs across active Alliance factories having been completed.
“This includes 61 percent of the repairs we deem ‘highest priority’ and ‘high priority’ — such as the structural retrofitting of columns and the installation of fire doors,” he said, adding that 58 Alliance factories had substantially completed their Corrective Action Plans and 127 factories had been suspended for not making sufficient progress on remediation.
The Alliance has been working in Bangladesh since July 2013, after the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza in which 1,133 workers lost their lives. More than 2,000 others were injured. The Alliance works with 685 factories in Bangladesh and is made up of 29 mainly U.S. firms, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Gap Inc. and VF Corp.
The five-year mandate will be completed by July 2018.
In the remaining time, work to inspect and ensure safety in factories is being bolstered with extensive worker training. More than 1.3 million workers have been trained in fire safety and more than one million workers have received a second, refresher training.
The confidential 24-hour helpline for workers will continue to be strengthened. From October to December 2016, the helpline received close to 1,200 calls, of which 342 were directly related to safety, Moriarty said, adding that the Alliance would ensure that the helpline would remain available to Bangladesh’s garment workers without interruption beyond the transition in 2018.
So far, 131 worker safety committees have been formed in Alliance factories to facilitate a more open dialogue between workers and factory management, with 55 of these being fully operational.
“This means that they have completed orientation, a risk assessment, the development of a safety policy and a three-month verification process. Our work to expand these committees continues,” he explained.
As the new year begins, it is also a time to assess the work already done.
“How do we know these efforts are having an impact?” Moriarty asked. “We are looking at what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic transformations in manufacturing history for a variety of reasons. The Bangladesh garment industry grew up with very little attention paid to safety. Then it grew up in places where safety was actually pretty difficult and so as we found out in 2012 and 2013, the industry was one of the least safe, one of the most dangerous in the world. In the last three and a half years, we have largely turned that around and are now seeing the transformation of one of the most dangerous garment industries in the world into one of the safest garment industries in the world.”
In the last two years not a single worker at Alliance factories has lost his or her life in an electrical, structural or fire-related accident at an Alliance-compliant factory, compared to more than 1,200 accident-related fatalities at other factories throughout Bangladesh in 2016, Moriarty said, pointing out that this shift toward safety would help the industry reap benefits going forward.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has been working toward a target of exporting $50 billion for the garment industry by 2021, up from $28.5 billion in 2016. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of garments in the world, after China and employs more than 4.5 million workers, more than 80 percent of whom are women.
Although there has been concern by factory owners in Bangladesh about the large number of Alliance factories suspended, Moriarty said these factories had shown “a lack of will, or in many cases a lack of ability, to remediate.” Some were in multistory buildings without the option to handle structural change, and others were in the process of relocation.
“Frankly, the options continue to be that you risk another Rana Plaza or to say that our members should not be dealing with the factory. These factories have issues and it is a public warning that this factory is not a safe place to work,” Moriarty said, reiterating a no-tolerance policy for factories that were not making enough progress on remediation.
The factories that are suspended can reapply through an Alliance member to be reinstated, after a period of three months, after undergoing inspections for corrections made. “Our focus on safety is so that a worker doesn’t have to fear for their life when they go to work in the morning, and that’s why we suspend a factory who doesn’t have the will or the provisions,” Moriarty said, adding that many of the factories suspended had 700 to 800 workers in each of these factories and were much smaller than the average Alliance factories.
Responding to a question about the labor unrest in the suburb of Ashulia in December, with workers demanding higher wages and global retailers responding in support of worker demands and for the release of arrested union leaders, Moriarty observed that discussions were ongoing to discuss possible options for the way forward with various groups. “I know that several Alliance member companies have written letters to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asking for a wage board to be formed. I want to stress here that we do think that all parties, the government and the BGMEA and the labor, all parties have to obey Bangladeshi law. We support the right for unionization, we believe there should be serious talks among the parties to iron out any problems that remain,” he said.
Looking ahead, a lot of what will be done over the next year will be to finish up these corrective action plans, continue safety training “but an equally important part is that we help design and implement the systems that will ensure the entire sector remains safe going forward. That’s got to continue after 2018.
“If nobody pays attention after 2018, necessary maintenance won’t get done, systems will deteriorate, people will start getting into bad habits, not intentionally, but people will move into new positions, they come up with new ways of doing things, and those things will diminish factory safety,” Moriarty warned.