Global brands and retailers reacted strongly to comments by a Bangladesh minister that appeared to criticize efforts to improve worker safety in the nation’s apparel factories as “a noose for the apparel sector in Bangladesh.”
Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith made the statement on Friday, to which Ellen Tauscher, independent chair of the Alliance for Worker Safety in Bangladesh, responded, “I am truly shocked that a member of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet would criticize efforts aimed at enhancing safety in the ready-made garment sector.”
She added, “Comments like those attributed to the finance minister and other officials in Bangladesh raise serious concerns about the commitment of the government to this unprecedented and private sector-led and funded safety initiative.”
After the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, which caused the deaths of more than 1,100 workers and injured more than 2,000, global brands and retailers came together to increase safety in garment factories in Bangladesh. The Alliance, a group of mostly North American brands and retailers including Wal-Mart, Target and the Gap, committed to invest $50 million over a five-year period to upgrade member factories to meet international fire and safety standards and ensure that garment workers are not risking their lives to earn a living. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which has been signed by more than 200 brands and retailers, mainly non-U.S. ones, works with more than 1,400 factories in Bangladesh.
“We do have concerns about various issues,” Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told WWD in addressing Muhith’s comments, “but largely it is a matter of misunderstanding between the various parties.”
He said concerns about the Accord and their demands was related to one of the factories that was closed more than a year ago, an action that was deemed unreasonable.
Tauscher said the Alliance urged Hasina and her government to “clarify their position on the great work being done and significant financial contributions being made toward improving factory safety, and make clear their intentions to continue this work for the benefit of factory workers, the garment industry and the country as a whole.”
Describing the commitment of the Alliance as “ironclad, but limited to five years,” Tauscher said the government of Bangladesh must commit to support and continue this effort to ensure the sustainability of the reforms achieved by the Alliance and other initiatives.
As the process of making more than 1,600 factory inspections was completed last year — in July by the Alliance, and in September by the Accord — the remediation, or fixing of the factories, has taken center stage. Both groups are also focusing on creating occupational safety and health committees at the factory level so that workers can respond better to crisis situations.
Both issues have been causing concern among factory owners in Bangladesh. “Remediation deadlines are being made, but it is hard for factory owners to meet these without some funding mechanisms in place,” Azim said. BGMEA has been working closely with both initiatives, the government and the International Labour Organization to address the issue.
A joint letter by the two global unions that are part of the Accord — IndustriALL and UNI Global Union — issued last Thursday also protested the Bangladesh finance minister’s remarks. “Sending a negative message about the operations of the Accord that has the effect of delaying or undermining essential factory safety is not in the interests of the government, the industry, or the workers,” the unions said.
The letter indicated that the process of making factories safer was still underway. “The danger for the Bangladeshi garment industry is not over — the factories are not safe yet,” they said.
Philip Jennings, general secretary of UNI, described the minister’s remarks as “inaccurate and irresponsible.”
“Let’s not forget that prior to the Accord, self regulation by brands and government inspections failed to prevent Bangladesh’s worse ever industrial accident,” said Jyrki Raini, general secretary of IndustriALL.
The unions wrote a separate letter to Atiqul Islam, president of the BGMEA, reacting to a statement he made describing the Accord as a big problem for the garment industry. Islam was speaking about the Accord’s efforts to reinstate workers who lost their jobs for reporting a fire and safety concern.
Meanwhile, BGMEA has set Sept. 8 as the date for the elections for its board of directors, who serve a two-year term. Its last elections were held just before the Rana Plaza collapse in March 2013.