The Bangladesh Accord has inspected 1,600 garment factories

The Bangladesh Accord has inspected 1,600 garment factories

Both the Alliance and Accord have long expressed their concerns at the Bangladesh government’s lack of engagement in the process of making garment factories safer and empowering workers. But recent comments from the country's finance minister appear to be pushing their frustrations to the fore.

An apparent outburst from Bangladesh's finance minister last week has drawn an unprecedented response from groups representing international fashion brands and retailers trying to improve worker and building safety in the Bangladesh ready-made garment industry.

Speaking at a meeting of garment industry employer associations, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith is said to have criticised the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety as a "noose" around the neck of the garment industry.

At the same meeting, Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) reportedly described the Accord as a "big problem" for Bangladesh’s readymade apparel industry, accusing them of imposing "impossible tasks" on factories and interfering in management matters.

According to the IndustriAll and Uni global union federations, Islam’s remarks were made in relation to efforts by the Accord to reinstate workers who were dismissed for reporting a fire and safety concern.

The unions added that the minister claimed that the confidence of brands in the Bangladesh garment industry has already been won and, therefore, the Accord should cease its operations.

Separately, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety said its member companies were also concerned by the finance minister’s comments.

"I am truly shocked that a member of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet would criticise efforts aimed at enhancing safety in the ready-made garment sector, which employs more than 4m women and men and is one of the largest contributors to Bangladesh’s growing economy," said the Honorable Ellen Tauscher, independent chair of the Alliance.

"I am hopeful that the government of Bangladesh will clarify its position and demonstrate unequivocal support for the Alliance and other initiatives working to improve the safety of its people and the sustainability of its economy."

In an open letter to the minister, the two unions say: "Your remarks wrongly accuse the Accord of seeking to hold back Bangladesh’s progress, when the reverse is true.

"As your government is well aware, the Accord came into being in response to the collapse of Rana Plaza, when it became evident to the world, and specifically to garment brands, that the safety of garment workers in Bangladesh could not be guaranteed."

The unions pointed out that the Accord has inspected 1,600 garment factories used by its signatory companies and made safety recommendations for each one since it was set up following the Rana Plaza disaster, which killed around 1,300 garment workers.

"The easiest response for the brands to this situation would be to walk away and look for safer countries to produce in," they add, pointing out that the response was instead "to demonstrate their commitment to the industry in Bangladesh by working with the factories to make them safe."

IndustriAll’s general secretary Jyrki Raina, says, prior to the Accord, self-regulation by brands and government inspections failed to prevent Bangladesh’s "worst-ever industrial accident".

Raina and Jennings have called on the minister to "stop sending negative messages" to factories that could have the effect of delaying or undermining essential factory safety improvements.

The Alliance’s Tauscher adds: "Comments like those attributed to the finance minister and other officials in Bangladesh raise serious and significant concerns about the commitment of the government to this unprecedented and private sector-led and funded safety initiative."

She continues: "The Alliance urges Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government to clarify their position on the great work being done and significant financial contributions being made toward improving factory safety, and make clear their intentions to continue this work for the benefit of factory workers, the garment industry and the country as a whole."

Lack of engagement
Both the Alliance and Accord are increasingly frustrated at the apparent lack of commitment by the Bangladesh government in the process of making factories safer and empowering workers.

They point out that the two initiatives run for five years until 2018, yet the government currently lacks the will or the capacity to continue this momentum.

More immediately, it appears to be struggling with the task of overseeing the inspection and remediation process for the 1,500 or more factories that fall within its scope – as well as those that haven’t yet been identified.

Other areas still lacking are the creation of better labour relations between workers and management in Bangladesh, and the national roll-out of training for workers on what to do in the event of a fire (the Alliance has so far trained 1.1m workers at its supplier factories).

Other challenges that have a huge impact on sourcing from Bangladesh include nepotism, lack of implementation of the laws, lack of governance, corruption, and the relentless drive for lower prices.

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