With the second anniversary of the deadliest garment factory accident in the history of the fashion industry being marked today, it is time for a review and an assessment of the current situation. What measures have been taken, what progress has been made by the international fashion community and local agencies in Bangladesh?
On 24th April 2013, the Rana Plaza building complex in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. It housed five garment factories that produced clothing for international brands and retailers, among them C&A, Walmart, Primark, Kik, The Children's Place, Dress Barn, Benetton and Mango. As the world watched in horror, the death toll rose rapidly from dozens to hundreds and finally to 1,133 workers. More than 2,500 workers were injured. It was soon clear that this was not only one of the worst industrial disasters for Bangladesh but the deadliest garment factory accident in the history of the fashion industry.
After the shocks of the initial discovery - the poor conditions of factories in Bangladesh, the low wages of garment workers and missing health and safety measures - the international community and local authorities came together to discuss the next steps and bring about improvements.
Accord and Alliance support transparency
Two years on, both the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety have had a chance to publish their 18 months progress reports, detailing the status of factory inspections, the implementation of health and safety measures and the progress of corrective action plans. For the first time, these reports are also available online, detailing progress for each factory inspected and adding transparency where there was none before.
In fact, transparency may be the biggest improvement. After all, before the disaster, international buyers were more than reluctant to even disclose their sources or admit to producing in some of the factories. While some still are, transparency has increased and buyers are more open to naming their suppliers, given that they are now part of a network of factories that undergo audits and inspections regularly. On the factory side, owners have understood that buyers are concerned about health and safety measures and that they better comply if they want to stay competitive.
Since the inspections started, over 175 factories have been closed due to "compliance issues, western retailer audits, higher wages and political disruptions" according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
The question remains though is what has happened to the factories that are neither covered by the Accord nor the Alliance? Given that the Accord covers around 1,600 factories and the Alliance around 1,500, that still leaves at least a third, if not more of Bangladesh's 4,500 - 5,000 garment factories that likely have not been inspected.
The problem is a known one as currently, 40 percent of all garment factories are housed in shared buildings where western buyers do not want to place orders due to non-compliance issues. Some two billion US dollars would be needed to relocate those factories. "The government has to arrange the fund at a low interest rate to help their relocation," said BGMEA vice president Shahidullah Azim.
Compensation slowly trickling in
In terms of funding, Italian fashion house Benetton was just in the news for being one of the last Accord signatories and major international buyers to fulfill its pledge. Though the company donated 1.1 million US dollars into a compensation fund for victims, campaigners were disappointed that the fund's target of 30 million US dollars had not been reached and that Benetton was not willing to pick up the tap.
“Benetton had a real opportunity to emerge as a leader and prove that its pledges of empathy, understanding and care for the welfare of the victims were not just some PR spin. Unfortunately, the true colors of Benetton are now revealed,” commented Ineke Zeldenrust, spokeswoman for the Clean Clothes Campaign.
Though the establishment of various funds is a step in the right direction and globally, the first round of compensation has been completed, the example of Benetton shows that a delay in disbursement due to confusion or reluctance on the buyer's part has delayed help for those who need it most.
Campaigning site Avaaz's campaign director Dalia Hashad hopes that Benetton's move will encourage other brands with links to Rana Plaza to pay into the fund. “From Carrefour, Walmart and the Children’s Place to JC Penney, all of them have either not given a cent or need to give more, so that’s what we hope to see in the coming days,” she said.
She also points to the fact that some survivors are marked for life, unable to work because of their physical injuries, too traumatized to return to any garment factory, or facing discrimination. “This is a tragedy from which people will never recover. There is discrimination against survivors of the Rana Plaza because they’re looked at as damaged goods. The need for full compensation is greater than ever”, emphasizes Hashad.
Helpline for workers has been received well
A real success has been the Alliance's worker helpline "Amader Kotha" or “Our Voice”, which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is currently accessible to over 500,000 workers in more than 300 factories; the goal is to have 100 percent of factories and workers trained on how to use it by July 2016. This is a commendable effort and improvement, giving a voice to workers who had none before. The response shows that the workers are only eager to use it - the helpline receives on average 3,000 calls per month and callers (who may choose to remain anonymous) address issues not only pertaining to workplace safety but also to working hours and wages.
As a country earning tens of billions of US dollars through a ready-made garment industry that accounts for 80 percent of all exports, Bangladesh seems to have emerged stronger after the tragedy, confidently setting an export target of 50 billion US dollars by 2021.
“We are very confident about achieving the export earning target set for 2021. But we need infrastructural and policy support to attain the goal," said Azim, adding that the apparel industry needs to be considered a ‘priority sector’ to graduate Bangladesh to a middle income nation by 2021.
For the time being, it is noticeable that though the reports of factory incidences in Bangladesh have by no means ceased, however, fewer than before seem to involve the garment industry. And that is hopefully an indicator that developments have been moving in the right direction.