“It’s not just another anniversary,” Michael H. Posner, director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business, speaking about the fifth-year anniversary of the disaster at Rana Plaza, which collapsed on April 24, 2013, in a Dhaka suburb, taking the lives of more than 1,130 workers. “It’s the right time to take a deep breath for everybody and say, ‘We’ve addressed one aspect of the challenge, now we have to address the rest, and it needs to be a collective action.’”
Speaking to WWD about the new report published by the center, “Five Years After Rana Plaza: The Way Forward” by Paul M. Barrett, Dorothée Baumann-Pauly and April Gu, Posner spoke about some of the highlights of the work done, but also about the suggestions for the way forward.
“Bangladesh needs to be right in the middle of it,” he said of ongoing changes. “It needs to be led by the government and by the people of Bangladesh. But they can’t do it alone, so we need some application, some responsibility from the global brands and retailers, the governments, the World Bank, the philanthropists — they all need to be involved as well in addition to the local industry in Bangladesh.”
The report focuses on a model of shared responsibility based on five core elements, including end-to-end visibility of the universe of factories producing for export; expanded industrywide collaboration; a credible system for determining the costs of remediation; a cooperative model for raising funds in a fair and proportional way, and distribution of those funds in a manner ensuring financial transparency and integrity.
The estimated price tag for these continued improvements is $1.2 billion.
The future parameters need to cover some important factors that have not been taken into account, the report noted, including the issue of sub-contractors.
While brands and manufacturers in Bangladesh have consistently stated that sub-contractors were eliminated during the process of increasing factory safety after Rana Plaza, Posner observed that was not quite the case. “I don’t think they ever went away. What I think has happened is that some have closed either because the conditions were really terrible or they didn’t have the business and business failed. Meanwhile, others have been created,” Posner said.
“Sub -contracting is not a dirty word,” he remarked. “It is part of the way the business operates. And what we’re saying to the global brands, and retailers is: ‘acknowledge that that’s how the business is done, in Bangladesh, and elsewhere. Recognize that many of those factories have an even slimmer margin for their businesses, and that they may not have the resources to invest in things like fire doors, or sprinklers or putting banisters on the stairs. Our notion isn’t that this is an improper or unethical practice, but rather we are saying let’s give it greater visibility and be realistic about what it’s going to take to fix it.”
While giving credit to the two groups of brands and retailers that have been working in Bangladesh to improve factory safety over the last five years — the European-led Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the American-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which have covered more than 2,300 factories, the report noted that the “the laudable progress on safety has also widened the bifurcation of the industry.”
“An elite segment of suppliers can afford to make improvements and continues to enjoy relationships with international brands and retailers. Much of the rest of the industry either cannot or will not make expenditures to enhance safety and, as a result, workers in this segment remain at risk,” the report noted, referring to the remaining factories in Bangladesh — estimates of the number of these varies between 700 and 1,500. These are being remediated under the National Initiative, which is not funded by global retailers and brands.
Additionally, “some of the factories that have seen improvements are in danger of backsliding when foreign initiatives conclude and all oversight responsibility reverts to the Bangladeshi government, which continues to move very slowly on the safety front,” the report noted.