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Slow, Steady Progress Seen 1 Year After Rana Plaza Tragedy
 

By Roy Maurer  7/3/2014
 

Scott Nova speaking at AIHce 2014. Courtesy of Professional Images Photography.

Conditions have improved in Bangladesh’s garment factories a little over a year since the April 24, 2013, collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka which killed 1,130 people, according to governments, organizations and experts working on the ground since the tragedy.  

European Union Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said in a speech at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris on June 26, 2014, “In particular, they are making good progress on inspections of factories according to common standards and an operating manual for assessing building, fire and electrical safety.” De Gucht followed by saying “of course more needs to be done,” including extending labor rights to workers in the country’s export processing zones and addressing restrictions on trade union formation and membership. The EU is the largest client of Bangladesh’s garment business and is sending a delegation to review progress this month.

Additionally, global brands and retailers are working with trade unions and the Bangladesh government to implement their own commitment through two arrangements: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

More than 170 global brands and retailers, including three of the largest fashion retailers and two of the biggest general retailers, have signed on with the legally binding accord, which now covers 1,700 factories and 2 million workers, according to Worker Rights Consortium Executive Director Scott Nova. That’s more than half of all current apparel production in Bangladesh.

Nova said during a June 4, 2014, keynote speech at the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s annual conference that the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh has moved at a steady pace with inspections. “The first follow-up inspections are underway to check whether factory owners are making needed fire and life safety changes to their buildings,” he said.

The mostly European-based group, which includes H&M, Inditex, PVH and Abercrombie, has hired 110 engineers and inspected 775 factories for structural soundness, electrical wiring, adequate fire exits and sprinkler systems. Eight factories have been temporarily closed due to unsafe conditions.

On a parallel front, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, made up of mostly U.S. brands anchored by Gap and Wal-Mart, has inspected over 600 factories, and closed five due to hazards found.

Self-Policing ‘Did Not Work’

UNI Global Union’s General Secretary Philip Jennings described the efforts underway in Bangladesh as a game-changer, “not only in Bangladesh but along the whole supply chain from factory to shop floor.” Speaking at the OECD meeting, Jennings decried the “do-it-yourself inspections of the past which have cost so many lives.”

The global brands and retailers ran inspection programs and certified facilities as safe in Bangladesh in the years before the Rana Plaza disaster, but they failed to identify and address deadly safety hazards, Nova said.

“All factories where major disasters have occurred were repeatedly inspected under private-industry programs,” he said, including Tazreen Fashions, also in Dhaka, where a deadly fire claimed the lives of 112 workers in 2012. Tazreen had been inspected by Wal-Mart several times, and Rana Plaza was inspected by the certification organization Business Social Compliance Initiative. “Private industry failed to correct or even document fire safety and structural deficiencies in the garment factories that burned or collapsed, showing that self-policing simply did not work,” Nova said.

Why did these programs fail? The problem was not technical; it was political, he said. According to Nova, auditors were not charged with looking for the hazards that were actually killing workers. “Even after fires and building collapses occurred, structural integrity, fire separation and fire exits were never part of the inspection protocols.”

Change was desperately needed, and that was painfully clear to everyone after Rana Plaza, he said.

Independent inspections under the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh began in November 2013. More than 50 factories per week are being inspected, Nova said. The Accord intends that all initial inspections and, where needed, renovation plans, will be completed by October 2014.

Under the Accord, brands and retailers must require factories to undergo any needed renovations and help pay for them, said Nova. Where a building or structure is found to pose an immediate threat to worker safety, the Accord will recommend that the building be temporarily evacuated. Workers are notified and continue to receive salary payments while the building is repaired to standard. Brands and retailers are also required to sever relations with any factory that refuses renovations and make two-year commitments to safe factories. “It’s a commitment to the factory that if you will act responsibly and be safe, the brand will support you financially,” he said.

“The first follow-up inspections are now being carried out, to confirm that factories have carried out the repairs and renovations they have committed to.”

A few of the major challenges identified include the substantial financial commitments from all involved, changing the culture of the industry, and unauthorized subcontracting, Nova explained. But he’s optimistic about the changes underway.  

“The Accord can be a model for effective private regulation of labor conditions in global supply chains everywhere,” he said, to address the broad range of worker health and safety concerns in global manufacturing.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

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