Concerns that three separate initiatives underway to boost the safety of factory workers in Bangladesh would lead to multiple audits and unnecessary bureaucracy for factories are beginning to be assuaged. The groups involved are now beginning to look at ways of reaching common standards, as Petah Marian reports.

The adoption of common safety standards in Bangladesh's ready-made garment factories appears to have taken a step forward following a meeting of key stakeholders in the industry - including the three main initiatives aimed at improving safety in Bangladesh's garment factories.

The Bangladesh government is leading the National Tripartite Action Plan on Building and Fire Safety, in partnership with employer and worker groups and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Meanwhile, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is representing a number of European brands and retailers, while the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has been set up by some 20 North American companies.

All three were set up in response to the Rana Plaza building collapse in April, in which 1,132 people died and more than 1,000 workers were injured.

Despite their initial differences, the groups now seem to be looking at ways to collaborate with the Tripartite Agreement and working towards adopting a common set of safety standards. 

Stumbling blocks
The Alliance was set up by a number of North American retailers after certain elements of the Accord proved to be major stumbling blocks, particularly around the way disputes would be resolved.

Speaking in July, Jay Jorgensen, senior vice president, global chief compliance officer at Wal-Mart, said that the reason the retailer could not sign the Accord was because "Europe has a different legal environment than the US and Canada," and "the Accord has some provisions that, in the way the US and Canadian legal systems work, would subject us to potentially unlimited legal liability and litigation."

As the IndustriAll-managed Accord was being set up, North American retailers faced significant pressure from campaigners to sign the agreement. Indeed, unions and labour activists were scathing in their assessment of the North American pact, describing it as a "sham," "toothless" and "full of flaws".

Yet a workshop convened by the Bangladesh government's Ministry of Labour and Employment and the International Labour Organization (ILO) last week brought together key national and international stakeholders from the ready-made garment sector, ministries and agencies, employers' and workers' groups, and technical specialists on building and fire safety.

The participants agreed there is a need for a uniform approach to setting common fire, electrical and building safety assessment standards in the ready-made garment industry (RMG), the ILO said.

Secretary of the Bangladesh Ministry of Labour, Mikail Shipar, said this was critical because the assessments would be carried out by different initiatives. 

"We welcome the commitment made by the Accord and the Alliance to coordinate the development of the standards to be used for the assessments. The Tripartite Committee will, with the assistance of the ILO and in consultation with the Accord and the Alliance, organise the activities required to realise such coordination."

Efforts to avoid duplication
In August, IndustriAll policy director Jenny Holdcroft told just-style that the Accord would carry out inspections on signatory supplier factories, so there would be no need for them to be inspected as part of the government-led National Tripartite Action Plan on Building and Fire Safety (NAP).

According to the information collected at the start of August, the Accord inspections would cover 1,497 factories, a "significant slice of the industry here," noted Holdcroft.

Speaking to just-style onWednesday (11 September), she emphasised that "if the standard adopted by the NAP and/or the Alliance does not reach the standard required by the Accord, then the Accord would apply the higher standard to its factory inspections."

However, this remains to be seen, she added, "as the details of the standard have not yet been discussed between the different initiatives".

The ILO said assessments of factories not covered by the Alliance and the Accord will begin towards the end of September, and will be carried out by the 30 engineering teams led by Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and nine other technical universities, under the supervision of the National Tripartite Committee.

Shipar called on the Alliance and the Accord to share their lists of factories so that duplication can be avoided and the national effort can begin.

The Alliance has not responded to requests for comment as this article went to press.