The Accord and the Alliance have achieved a lot in tackling factory safety in Bangladesh

The Accord and the Alliance have achieved a lot in tackling factory safety in Bangladesh

The death of 13 people following a boiler explosion earlier this month at the Multifabs factory in Bangladesh's Gazipur district makes many of us wonder why the country's garment making sector still seems so tragically unsafe, writes Mike Flanagan. While spectacular advances have been in garment factory safety over the past four years, they have not been matched by improvements in other threats to Bangladeshi workers' lives.

A decade ago, dozens of workers were killed by unsafe Bangladesh apparel and textile factories almost every year. In 2005, at least 85 people were killed in textile factory fires or collapses; the following year saw a similar number lose their lives.

In 2012, it looked as if things couldn't possibly get any worse when 112 people were killed in a fire at Dhaka's Tazreen factory. But in April the following year, even this was exceeded when at least 1,100 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza factory building collapse.

Problems elsewhere

Since 2013, the country's textile and garment factories have become much safer. The programmes demanded by over 200 retailer and brand buying organisations forming the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance) have achieved a lot, but credit also goes to a greater spirit of cooperation in tackling safety across Bangladeshi society. Between April 2013 and the July 2017 explosion, fatal accidents in Bangladesh textile and apparel factories dropped to a few a year.

Indeed, the 13 killed this year represent a smaller safety risk than many workers run in what appear to be the safest of countries.

Bangladesh garment factory explosion kills 11

The UK, for example, has practically the world's lowest rate of deaths through industrial accidents: but in the past nine months, nine people have been killed in British quarries. Workers in British quarries amount to about 1% of the 4m Bangladesh apparel workforce – yet fatal accidents in those quarries killed about as many people as in the entire Bangladesh garment industry.

Sadly, safety improvements haven't been as noticeable in other Bangladesh industries.

Last year, for example, 35 died in a foil factory fire, while over 100 were injured after gas leaked from a Chittagong fertiliser plant. Fatal accidents are rare in leatherworking – but hundreds of current and former leatherworkers die every year from illnesses caused by the processes used in Bangladesh tanneries.

Could more have been done to prevent this month's explosion?

Probably. The priority for the Accord and Alliance programmes was ensuring factories would not collapse or burn down. Their refits stipulated that boilers were positioned somewhere they wouldn't cause fires or destabilise buildings if anything went wrong: they did not prioritise inspecting boilers to detect explosion risk. Activist groups like the Clean Clothes Campaign have been criticising that policy for some years. The Accord has now said that in future, expanding its inspection programme to include boilers will be a priority.

Industrial accidents are not the biggest risks to Bangladesh workers

Industrial accidents make up a small proportion of unexpected deaths in Bangladesh. The country's biggest tragedy so far this summer has been the death of around 140 people in mid-June through landslips. Deaths through violence (both from criminals and police repression) are high by world standards and, although car ownership is low, the country has almost as many car deaths a year as the US.

Together, such violence and accidents accounted for 9.3% of Bangladeshi deaths in 2015 – almost three times the share they made up of deaths in richer countries like the UK or US. But in Bangladesh, like almost everywhere in the world, over 90% of premature deaths are not the result of violence or accidents, but of illness.

Since the garment industry began its development, Bangladesh has made huge strides in reducing premature deaths. In 1980, the average Bangladeshi died 20 years earlier than the average person in an affluent country like Britain or France, where people generally eat properly in healthy housing and pay for medical treatment: their societies provide adequate and decent sanitation, infrastructure and affordable health services.

By 2014 (latest data available), life expectancy had increased worldwide – but that gap between rich countries and Bangladesh had shrunk to nine years. Almost all that gap is the result of poverty.

Bangladesh's industrial safety gains aren't matched by better industrial relations…

In spite of the July explosion, safety in Bangladesh's apparel industry has clearly improved over the past five years – and far faster than in most other parts of the Bangladesh economy.

Labour disputes have become less violent as well. A decade ago, almost all disputes, however trivial, led to riots and often deaths – within minutes. That's no longer the case, but there is depressing evidence apparent peace has been achieved the wrong way.

Many observers claim there has been an excessive repression of workers' rights to argue for better conditions

Some readers will disregard a recent survey by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), putting Bangladesh among the world's ten worst countries for workers' rights.

The world's 10 worst countries for workers

But it's not just labour unions arguing it has become tougher over the past few years for unions to press for better conditions: the UN's International Labour Organisation says much the same thing. We have even seen more and more buyers having to intervene to prevent garment factories further squeezing union influence.

ILO sets out action points for Bangladesh on labour law

Meanwhile, with Bangladesh garment workers seeing no increase in their $68 a month minimum wage since 2013, few will have seen any improvement in the quality of their housing, sanitation, diet, access to medical care or future prospects.

…and worker health requires decent jobs

Now the Accord is looking at boiler safety, we might be coming close to getting as far as possible to limit the threats from unsafe buildings in Bangladesh.

Of course factories will still need monitoring and upgrading for years to come. But while being killed or injured in unsafe factories now affects relatively few Bangladeshi apparel workers, every single one of them is likely to die nine years earlier than a European doing the same job.

Poverty reduces the life expectancy of the country's 4m garment workers and their dependants.

Bad, unsanitary, housing, limited access to affordable medical care, and poor diet kill far more than unsafe factories or electrical wiring. The priority for Bangladeshi workers is now better wages and working conditions.

With profitability at Western retailers still falling, demands from activists and the Bangladeshi government for higher prices aren't going to achieve anything. 

The key to better wages in Bangladeshi apparel factories is better productivity. And sensitively regulated, cooperative, unions are essential to the partnerships needed for productivity improvement.

For real improvements in Bangladeshi worker health and safety over the next decade, we need the same collaboration bringing to industrial relations what we've seen in safety over the past five years.