More than $280m has been committed to improving the safety of Bangladeshs garment sector

More than $280m has been committed to improving the safety of Bangladesh's garment sector

Just how many factories there are in the Bangladesh garment industry, the size of the workforce, and the number of workers covered by the various initiatives aimed at improving factory safety? The answer, it seems, is that nobody knows for sure – and a row has now broken out between two groups of academics over their analysis.

Why this matters, of course, is that more than $280m has been committed to improving the safety of Bangladesh's garment sector, and this work will be impossible to complete if factories and workers continue to remain unaccounted for.

At the heart of the debate is a report 'Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh's Forgotten Apparel Workers,' which was published in December by New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. It claimed there are thousands more factories in Bangladesh and almost a million more workers producing garments for export than have previously been acknowledged.

Bangladesh indirect sourcing exposing worker safety violations

The researchers also concluded that there has been a "woeful lack of progress in actually fixing unsafe factories and that there still is no comprehensive plan to provide the resources to do so."

But professors from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Colorado, who have studied the findings, say they have identified a series of errors in data collection and analysis – and have in fact come to the opposite conclusion.

"Contrary to Stern's assertions, more than 70% of garment workers in Bangladesh are covered by the Accord and the Alliance, and if we include workers employed in factories inspected by the ILO-advised National Initiative, the percentage of covered workers reaches 89%," they say.

Among the key findings of the Stern Center's report was the identification of 7,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, a massive increase on previous estimates of 4,500 factories. It also assessed the prevalence of indirect sourcing, concluding that 91% of factories in two sub-districts of Dhaka, including informal subcontractors, produced at least partly for export and were unregistered.

It backed its hypothesis with the observation that from 2013 to 2015, while the number of direct exporters remained constant, total apparel export volumes fluctuated substantially. This is because either each direct exporter is able to dramatically increase and decrease its production in response to shifting demand, or the thousands of indirect suppliers enable direct exporters to accommodate significant shifts, it said. 

While Stern's report was based on an analysis of factory data collected from publicly available sources and a field survey, the researchers at Pennsylvania and Colorado say the database included closed factories (including the five factories destroyed in the Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013), duplicate, and domestic market-oriented factories.

"We estimate that Stern's database of 7,165 export factories is inflated by at least two thousand factories," the professors say in their report 'The Bulk of the Iceberg: A Critique of the Stern Center's Report on Worker Safety in Bangladesh.'

Other criticisms of the Stern work are that they could not find the majority of the factories in the two sub-districts of Dhaka; the claim there are 5.1m garment workers in Bangladesh is unreliable because it is based on the flawed factory database; unregistered, informal factories employ less than 2% of workers producing garments for export; and "several hundred factories" were not categorised properly, resulting in an underestimate of the number of workers covered by the Accord and Alliance initiatives.

The Pennsylvania State University and University of Colorado analysis instead estimates there are 3.85m workers, and that the Accord and the Alliance initiatives cover 71.4% of workers in the ready-made garments sector.

Add in those under the National Initiative, the ILO-advised government factory inspection programme, and it calculates nearly 3.43m workers are covered – representing 89.1% of all workers.

While the Stern Center academics say they dispute many of the latest assertions about their work, there is one are on which they all agree: that there has been progress in addressing factory safety in Bangladesh, but that much work remains to be done.

Click on the following links to read more:

The Bulk of the Iceberg: A Critique of the Stern Center's Report on Worker Safety in Bangladesh

NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights response to Penn State Center for Global Workers' Rights Bangladesh research critique