As factory buildings get safer in Bangladesh, international groups as well as the local industry are revising their to-do lists and taking stock of the changes that have taken place as the third anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza approaches on Sunday.
In the aftermath of the tragedy that claimed the lives of 1,133 workers and injured more than 2,000, overseas companies formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is made up of 28 mainly U.S. firms including Wal-Mart, Target, Gap and VF Corp., and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, comprised of 200 overseas companies with two global unions, IndustriALL and UNI Global Union.
“The groundbreaking Bangladesh Accord came out of a deadly tragedy but has saved lives since its creation,” Christina Hajagos-Clausen, IndustriALL Global Union director for the textile and garment industry, said Thursday, noting that real improvements on the ground have been made, with more than 50,000 problems and 75 percent of electrical issues that have been reported as fixed.
After factory inspections were completed, all the factories are now in the process of remediation, fixing the problems for further safety. “Factories and their buyers failing to meet the requirements are being held accountable and placed in the Accord escalation procedure,” Alke Boessiger, head of commerce at the UNI Global Union, said, adding that while there are “still many unacceptable delays in improving safety and working conditions in the industry, there can be no doubt that the work of the Bangladesh Accord has saved lives.”
He cited the recent fire at Pretty Sweaters Ltd., where there was “no loss of life as sprinkler and automated fire alarm systems ensured that the fire was contained to the seventh floor of the factory and brought under control within an hour.”
“Although some of these systems were already in place before the Accord, this shows that the safety measures that are being implemented can create a safer environment for garment workers. The Rana Plaza anniversary is an opportunity to remind the world that although the Bangladesh Accord has been difficult to implement and subject to delays, tangible progress has been made in ensuring the safety of garment workers in Bangladesh,” the two global unions noted in a statement on Thursday.
Over the last three years, a lot of rehabilitation has happened for survivors of Rana Plaza and the families of the deceased. Action Aid Bangladesh took stock of the situation in its third annual survey. The report was released Saturday at the BRAC Centre in Dhaka.
A little over half the survivors of Rana Plaza are now back to work, at 52 percent of the 1,800 survivors and families of the deceased, the report noted, adding that 21.4 percent of those presently employed work in garment factories.
“It is noteworthy that the survivors are changing their jobs and shifting from one factory to another frequently,” the report stated.
The launch of the report was accompanied by a discussion from some of the important stakeholders in the industry, including Syed Ahmed, inspector general of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, the department that plays a key role in inspecting factory safety; Khondokar Golam Moazzem Hossain, additional research director, Centre for Policy Dialogue; M Rabin, managing director of the Alliance; Hameeda Hossain, human rights activist, and Farah Kabir, country manager of Action Aid Bangladesh.
The first Action Aid survey covered 2,297 people, including survivors and families of the deceased.
“Although the Rana Plaza collapse has compelled many survivors to seek employment in other sectors, still there is a flow of workers resuming garment factories for work,” the report noted, pointing out that other than the 21.4 percent working in apparel factories, 16.8 percent worked as tailors, while others were engaged in petty business (23.2 percent), run grocery shops (3 percent), or worked in agriculture (4.9 percent). Others worked as household help, salespeople, auto rickshaw drivers or in mobile phone repair.
Of the 48 percent who are unemployed, 56.5 percent cited physical weakness and 34.1 percent mental weakness as the main reasons.
More survivors have gone back to work over the last year, with the unemployment rate decreased by 7 percent from 55 percent in 2015.
Largely, the situation appears to have improved, with 78.8 percent of the survivors remarking that their physical condition was “more or less stable,” while 14.6 percent reported that it was “deteriorating,” listing headaches, difficulty in movement, and pain in hands, legs and back as some of the major problems.
Although the Rana Plaza victims acknowledged the compensation received from the Bangladesh government, foreign retailers and donor agencies, respondents said that a lot of the money was spent on repaying past debts, food and treatment.
The survey found that 61.1 percent of survivors’ monthly expenditure went to food, with 15.5 percent spent on house rent, 12.4 percent on children’s education and 8.4 percent on treatment. Only 16 percent went to savings and investment, particularly in small business, land and cattle.
During the discussion, Moazzem of the Centre for Policy Dialogue recommended special health cards for workers to get free service from government hospitals. There also were calls, especially from Hossain, for more focus on effective trade unions and on training and job placement for survivors.
The third anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy also has reminded observers that the workers were forced to go to work in a building where there were already noticeable cracks, illustrating the importance of formation of trade unions. Although the Bangladesh government allowed trade unions to form beginning in 2013, and the number of trade unions has gone up significantly, Human Rights Watch noted Thursday that only about 10 percent of the country’s more than 4,500 garment factories have registered unions.
“Thwarting independent garment worker unions is bad for businesses, workers and Bangladesh’s international reputation,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Bangladesh needs to show it has political will to permit workers to exercise their rights by registering unions promptly and punishing factory owners who bust unions or fire their leaders.”
The group observed that Bangladesh labor laws and procedures pose formidable barriers to “founding and operating a union” and that the labor law requires “an unreasonably high 30 percent of workers in a factory to agree to form a union and mandates excessive registration procedures. The government has vaguely defined powers to cancel a union’s registration.” Human Rights Watch said that it had documented cases of physical assault, intimidation and threats, dismissal of union leaders, and false criminal complaints by factory officials or their associates against garment workers. It added that government and union data showed that while the number of union registration applications had increased since 2013, the government had rejected a large number of these applications.
The group cited estimates from The Solidarity Center, a nonprofit organization aligned with the AFL-CIO, that authorities approved fewer than half of the union applications filed since 2013, and that while 61 union registration applications were approved in 2015, labor authorities rejected 148. The Dhaka Joint Directorate of Labor alone rejected 73 percent of the applications, the group noted.
Referring to an analysis by the Solidarity Center of 70 cases in which authorities rejected union registration applications from 2013 to 2016, the study documented that the reasons for rejection included the assertion that applicants did not meet the threshold of 30 percent of the total number of workers to register a union, despite some applications showing they met or exceeded the threshold; management refusal to allow labor officials access to the factory to “investigate” applications, even though unions met registration requirements; allegations that worker signatures on union membership forms did not match those in salary sheets, although formatting, space and other considerations were probably not taken into account; and a requirement that local police verify that workers had met and elected the union on the date cited in the application.
Referring to the export processing zones which are not subject to the same rules for trade unions, HRW noted that the situation in those areas is “even worse. The law governing these zones does not allow workers to form unions. They can only form ‘Worker Welfare Associations,’ which, by restricting the type of organization that the workers can join, fail to meet international standards on freedom of association. The workers are prohibited from contacting nongovernmental organizations, must not be associated with political activity, and cannot engage ‘specialists’ to help them bargain collectively. A February 2016 amendment to the laws governing these zones, which the government drafted without consulting workers or labor rights advocates, retains these restrictions.”
The group called for global apparel and footwear brands that source from factories in Bangladesh, including those in the Accord and the Alliance, to support efforts to ease legal restrictions on unions and stop factory union-busting activities. “They should disclose their supplier and processing factories, and work with them to ensure they comply with international standards for workers’ basic rights,” HRW said, adding that the European Union and other donors should also insist that the Bangladesh government put in place a robust process for investigating and resolving cases of unfair labor practices.