Today, Bangladesh’s RMG sector is a front-runner in transparency regarding factory safety and value-chain responsibility, thanks to initiatives launched in the aftermath of the disaster, including those of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and the RMG Sustainability Council, maintained McKinsey & Company in its flagship survey of the Chief Purchasing Officer (CPO).
The Rana Plaza incident has undoubtedly been a dark spot in the otherwise bright history of the Bangladesh readymade garment sector, which made all round development over the years, to become the second largest apparel exporter in the world after China.
The unfortunate incident of 24 April 2013 — the collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza, which housed five apparel factories at Savar on the outskirts of capital city Dhaka that left at least 1,138 people dead and over 2,000 others injured — brought the spotlight back on Bangladesh as far as the safety and security in the apparel sector of the country was concerned.
As we observed the eighth anniversary of the event last month only, it was time to take stock of the massive reforms that the industry has undergone in its efforts to make it more sustainable and safer for the workers while also try and figure out the current state of affairs of those who survived the tragic incident.
Today, Bangladesh’s RMG sector is a front-runner in transparency regarding factory safety and value-chain responsibility, thanks to initiatives launched in the aftermath of the disaster, including those of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and the RMG Sustainability Council, maintained McKinsey & Company in its flagship survey of the Chief Purchasing Officer (CPO), which lauded Bangladesh’s achievements in the garment sector after the Rana Plaza collapse even as it went on to add that the various measures undertaken by the industry led to the closure of hundreds of unsafe, bottom-tier factories and the scaling-up of remediation activities in many others.
All these efforts, helped restore Bangladesh’s repute and position in the realm of apparel manufacturing and export leading to a decade of rapid growth even as Bangladesh went on to register a tremendous growth in apparel exports — from US $ 14.6 billion in 2011 to US $ 33.1 billion 2019 — a compound annual growth rate of 7 per cent even if over this period, Bangladesh’s RMG industry increased its share of global garment exports from 4.7 to 6.7 per cent.
Meanwhile, according to reports, following the Rana Plaza incident, the labour law was amended twice since 2013 and the labour rules were promulgated in 2015 with a major reform in the trade unionism even as the sector also launched several national-level trainers and mid-management professionals on social dialogue and industrial relations in collaboration with International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Government.
While a central fund for the welfare of the workers, where more than US $ 10 million is being contributed annually from RMG exports, was also established and unionisation has been made easier and the formation of an elected participation committee has been made mandatory in the factories – testimony of the developments towards ensuring workers’ empowerment.
In safety and remediation front, nearly 4,000 large, small and medium-scale garment factories were inspected by three agencies, including Accord, Alliance and Government initiatives to strengthen fire, electrical and structural safety and of the total number of inspected factories, nearly 3,000 have so far remediated as per the recommendations by the Accord and Alliance while the remediation of more than 1,000 small garment factories, which are not members of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), are yet to be completed, underlined reports.
It also added that after the departure of the Accord and Alliance, homegrown body of RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) was formed in collaboration with ILO representation from the retailers and brands and the BGMEA for monitoring the progresses made in garment factory safety.
The efforts had paid rich dividends as the country took significant steps towards sustainable and green manufacturing, boasting of 138 LEED green factories (39 of those are Platinum, certified by the United States Green Building Council) even as 13 among the top 20 ranking LEED certified factories around the world are also located in Bangladesh, and 500 more factories have registered for certification already.
However, as to the state of those who survived the tragedy, things apparently haven’t changed drastically for them, at least if we are to go by the recent reports, which suggest that around 57 per cent of Rana Plaza survivors has remained jobless after eight years of the tragic incident due to their physical weakness and mental trauma while the rest 43 per cent is engaged in various types of wage-earning jobs and self-employment.
This is as per a survey conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh, which underlined that the number of unemployed survivors has increased by 6 percentage points in 2021 from 51 per cent in the previous year.
ActionAid Bangladesh, unveiled its survey findings recently in a virtual dialogue titled Covid-19: Challenges for the Rana Plaza Tragedy Survivors, which was conducted among 200 survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse even as it found that around 92 per cent of the survivors did not get any support from the Government during the ongoing pandemic.
The report said that the physical health condition of 14 per cent of the survivors was getting worse as most of them were still suffering from headache, pain in hand and leg and back pain even as it suggested that around 12.5 per cent of the survivors was suffering from trauma, 58.5 per cent were more or less stable and 27.5 per cent completely stable in 2020.
After the devastating building collapse many could not return to work due to physical and mental condition while many have changed their profession as a way of living, the report said while adding that the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic has impacted their lives again and they deserve support packages from the Government and corporate sector.
According to the survey, out of 43 per cent of the employed survivors, 12 per cent returned to garments and another 12 per cent involved in tailoring. “The majority of the survivors have an average expenditure of over Taka 10,000 with major costs incurred for food, followed by house rent, children’s education and treatment. It needs to be noted that, income of most of the employed survivors have drastically decreased due the impacts of the pandemic,” the survey stated while adding that a total of 37.5 per cent of the survivors said their household income was between Taka 5,001–Taka 10,300 while 29.5 per cent had a household income between Taka 10,300-Taka 15,300.
Speaking at the virtual event, Parliament member Shirin Akhter said that trade unions, employers and the Government can work together to create a good working environment, transparency, and accountability in the factories while adding, “If we can confirm all these things, we can say that we have been able to bring positive change by learning from the horrors of the Rana Plaza incident.”
Meanwhile, Country Director of the International Labour Organisation, Tuomo Poutiainen, called for a new way of thinking about social security during the pandemic even as Research Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Khondokar Golam Moazzem, on his part, reportedly said that even though the survivors received some financial assistance, the process of reintegration of injured workers in the formal sector had not been introduced.
“It is disappointing that Bangladesh has yet to come up with an effective employment scheme although many years of Rana Plaza collapse have passed,” further added Cluster Coordinator of GIZ Werner Lange.
So, going by the findings of the survey and the views as expressed by the experts, one may maintain that even though a world of transformation has taken place in the Bangladesh garment industry over the years since the Rana Plaza incident in terms of workplace safety, security and sustainability, however, a lot is perhaps required still when it comes to ensuring the well-being of Rana Plaza survivors and hopefully stakeholders, in the days to come, would do even more to take care of them and ensure their welfare.