​Three ​reports published last month brought into focus some of the key challenges continuing to face the apparel industry in Bangladesh.

The industry in Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter in the world, after China, with exports of more $24.5 billion in 2014. The sector employs more than 4 million workers, 80 percent of whom are women.

A report by Human Rights Watch alleged a lack of freedom in forming labor unions and that workers continue to face attacks and impediments, while ​another by ​ Transparency International Bangladesh noted some of the key points missing in capacity-building​ for the industry.​ A third, by Action Aid Bangladesh, focused on the plight of injured workers and compensation for survivors and families of Rana Plaza, the eight-story building ​that collapsed on April 24, 2013, ​ in which 1,135 workers lost their lives. More than 2,000 workers were rescued from the rubble. ​
Each report suggested possible actions that could help the industry improve.

The 78-page report by Human Rights Watch, titled “Whoever Raises Their Head, Suffers the Most: Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories,” was ​ based on interviews with more than 160 workers from 44 factories. The report claimed ​that workers who formed unions continued to be targeted by factory ​management, were dismissed, or risked abuse by both managers and supervisors or thugs acting at their behest. It added that factory owners and management denied this.

“If Bangladesh wants to avoid another Rana Plaza disaster, it needs to effectively enforce its labor law and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

The report said that the primary responsibility for protecting the rights of workers rested with the Bangladesh government and that the Ministry of Labor and Employment needed to be strengthened in order to effectively investigate and prosecute unfair labor practices. These should include antiunion discrimination, intimidation and harassment cases, and ensure inspectors strictly follow the law, the report noted.

The report called for the government to carry out effective and impartial investigations into all workers’ allegations of mistreatment and prosecute those responsible. “If Bangladesh does not hold factory managers accountable who attack workers and deny the right to form unions, the government will perpetuate practices that have cost the lives of thousands of workers,” Robertson observed.

A Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association official told Human Rights Watch: “We have a bitter experience about unions. They believe they don’t need to work and they will get paid.”

Factory owners have earlier pointed out that, in Bangladesh, union leaders are often driven by political agendas and the issue is far more complex than it appears to the Western world.

However, more than 350 unions have been formed in the last two years, and the International Labor Organization has driven training sessions for the new leaders.

The lack of labor rights and security were also cited by Transparency International Bangladesh, which pointed to a “lack of political will in creating an environment that would ensure labor rights and collective bargaining.”

Its report, titled “Readymade Garments: Problems to Good Governance and a Way Forward,” centered on findings from April 2014 to March 2015.

Only 12 out of the 80 ongoing initiatives to improve governance in the garment sector were completed in fiscal 2014-15. Another 20 projects have remained stagnant and the implementation of another 48 initiatives identified to fix the problems in the garment sector are underway, the study said.

Progress was cited in terms of ensuring factory safety and capacity building and the hiring of 235 factory inspectors in line with the Sustainability Compact at the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments and the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense.

Five new offices of the factory inspectorate have been set up in garment areas and an adequate workforce has been ensured. Yet logistical support for these still needs to be provided. Transparency International also noted that the quality of warehouse inspections needed to be enhanced, although the actual number of inspections has increased.

The report said that 95 percent of garment factories are implementing the minimum wage. However, they are not paying salaries by the seventh day of the month, as required, and maternity leave and attendance salaries continue to be an issue.

The report also called for the appointment of experts to scrutinize building designs and said the BGMEA is sidestepping its duty to develop a database for garment workers with the excuse of a lack of funds.

More than 2,300 factory inspections that have been completed, but TIB warned that the lack of participation by buyers in the post-inspection reform activities was a threat to the whole initiative.

The buyers’ groups are also bypassing their commitments to help subcontractors, the report noted.

The report called for the formation of a workers’ welfare fund, in which 1 to 1.5 cents of the selling price of each garment would be taken as a contribution. A suggested ratio of contribution from buyers and factory owners could be 75 to 25.

Calling for speedy justice for the cases linked to the Rana Plaza collapse and Tazreen Fire, the report said that setting up tribunals would help expedite the matter.

The report by Action Aid Bangladesh focused on the situation of the survivors and victims of Rana Plaza — 55 percent of whom were found to be still unemployed due to physical inability, trauma or lack of suitable jobs.

“We have to understand the context and the process of rehabilitation of those affected by Rana Plaza and whose economic condition has deteriorated in this time. They need a lot more support, which has not been forthcoming,” Farah Kabir, country director of Action Aid Bangladesh, told WWD.

Only 35 percent of the survivors have returned to the garment sector, she said.

As far as healing is concerned, 70.6 percent responded that they are somewhat healed, while 22.6 percent reported that their condition is getting worse with difficulty in getting sufficient access to medical help. Sixty-nine percent said they are unable to return to regular work because of physical weakness, 7 percent for trauma and 15 percent for lack of suitable jobs.

The survey also found that 54.4 percent of respondents are facing difficulties in meeting their daily needs and that 2 percent cannot meet their daily needs at all.

Jahangir Alam, one of the survivors of the industrial disaster, who was present at the program, described some of the trauma. He said that he took up another job but found it difficult to continue. “One day, when the power went off I started screaming out of fear. I thought the Rana Plaza event was playing out again. I lost the job,” said Alam.

The Action Aid report stresses that boycotting Bangladesh, as many have suggested, would only do more damage. “Boycotting is not the answer as it will not solve the problems of unsafe or unjust working conditions,” the survey noted. “Workers can lose their jobs if retailers stop using a factory and brands may simply move production to other countries where conditions are worse. It is better to encourage brands and retailers to engage with their suppliers in a way that improves the conditions in the factories and the lives of the workers.”

“A lot has been done. Safety inspectors have been put in place, the Inspector General has said that only 32 factories have been closed for safety issues,” Kabir observed. “But there is still so much left to be done that it feels like a drop in the ocean.”

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