Halfway through its five-year mandate, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is speeding up on several fronts — worker training, empowerment, factory safety reviews and, especially now, the transparency in factory remediation. Seventy-seven factories have been suspended for slow progress with their names listed on the Alliance Web site.
The Alliance, which is made up of 28 North American brands and retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and VF Corp, was launched in the aftermath of the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza in April 2013, in which 1,133 workers lost their lives. Its mandate is set to expire in 2018.
“At the mid-point in our five-year project, several key themes emerge. First, our initiatives and those of our partners are working. Second, barriers that threaten to slow remediation are ever-present, making a dedicated focus now more important than ever. And third, there is a growing body of transparent and measurable data to support the life-saving impact of our work,” Ellen O’Kane Tauscher, independent chair of the Alliance, observed in the Safety Progress Report published by the group on Wednesday.
The report cited other key numbers: 677 factories out of an estimated 850 Alliance factories are active at this time; of the 36 factories recommended to the Government Review Panel for closure, one has relocated to a new structure and 13 are actively undergoing repair; the remaining 22 have either been closed permanently or suspended by the Alliance, and more than 6,500 displaced workers have been compensated.
In a teleconference reviewing the remediation, factory suspension and worker empowerment, James Moriarty, the Alliance’s executive director and former Ambassador to Bangladesh, addressed the issue of factory suspensions as well. These have “more than tripled — from 24 factories in December to 77 today,” he said.
Factories that are suspended have been officially removed from the Alliance compliant factory list based on lack of remediation progress.
“We are committed to transparency in our work — and we recently began a new policy of issuing public notifications on our Web site within seven days of the suspension of any Alliance factory. We expect this trend will continue as we suspend factories that fail to make adequate progress,” he said, explaining that factories that don’t make progress in addressing safety concerns are those that stand a greater risk of accidents.
“But this is about more than suspending factories that aren’t making progress — it’s about improving the hundreds of factories with which we continue to do business. This year, we are redoubling our efforts to make sure factories prioritize progress on the issues that are most critical to life safety, which are often the most difficult and time-consuming to remediate,” Moriarty said.
Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told WWD that the organization has taken strong exception to the practice of listing these factory names on the Web site and is asking the Alliance to review the process. “The expectation is too much. The process is going on — at times it is slower than others — with the need for funds, space, equipment, limited supplier. We are hoping this will be reviewed by the Alliance at the end of this month. Putting the names on the Web site discourages all the other buyers from working with the factories, not just the Alliance,” he said.
Ian Spaulding, senior adviser to the Alliance, observed that suspension “didn’t have to mean forever.”
He said factories could come back into the system, but only after they have corrected all their issues and after a member company sponsors them.
“It means starting the process again from Day One, which means going through the initial inspection again, after we are confident that they have addressed the issues,” he observed.
Spaulding also spoke about the factory remediation that has been fully completed so far — 24 factories — with another six expected to substantially complete their corrective action plans by the end of the month.
“To date, we have verified that more than 49 percent of all required repairs have been completed. That’s through physical verification on site. That means that out of 48,500 issues identified during our inspections, more than 23,000 have been verified as being addressed or closed out,” he said.
Referring to the Amader Kotha [Our Voice] Worker Helpline, which allows workers to anonymously report safety and other concerns, he said it had been very well received, with more than 45,000 calls from both Alliance and non-Alliance factories so far, with 866,702 workers having access to this service.
According to the progress report, 148 factories have completed 60 to 80 percent of remediation work as of February, 219 factories have completed 40 to 60 percent, 143 have completed 20 to 40 percent and 34 factories have completed 0 percent to 20 percent.
Training has also been a key issue — more than 20,000 security guards have been trained, with more than 1.2 million workers trained to handle fire safety. A refresher training with the goal of retraining 100 percent of the Alliance-related factory workforce was launched in November 2015 incorporating updates to training modules based on feedback so far. All the workers are expected to be retrained by July 2016.
Although there have been factory fires over the past year — such as at the Pretty Sweaters Ltd. factory in Gazipur on Feb. 23 and the Matrix Sweater Ltd. factory in Gazipur on Feb. 2, although there was no loss of life in either.
“The outbreak of several Bangladesh factory fires earlier this year was concerning,” Moriarty said, “and to us underscores the need for factories to quickly complete the most critical remediation efforts. That said, we were encouraged by the response of workers and security guards to the fires.”
Citing the independent, joint report by the National Fire Prevention Association and the University of Maryland that highlighted the success of Alliance initiatives — and also providing additional recommendations that the Alliance is now in the process of implementing, Moriarty said there were 250 garment factory fires in Bangladesh in 2012 — an average of five fires a week — that took the lives of 115 people.
“Last year, there were 30 such fires, none of which resulted in death,” he said. “Factory workers tell us they feel safer, and owners tell us they have greater confidence in the safety and management of their facilities.”