The Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013 was a wake-up call to Bangladesh and the entire garment industry that building and worker safety should be a priority. Eight years on and the country has one of the safest and most transparent apparel industries thanks to the remediation work that ensued. But while much has been achieved, there remains no room for complacency.

When a multi-storey factory building complex collapsed on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, eight years ago in April 2013, killing at least 1,138 garment workers, the industry was shaken to the core. It was the world’s worst industrial accident in 30 years and came just five months after the Tazreen factory fire in the same city, where more than 120 workers lost their lives.

The initiatives that were set up in the aftermath – the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety – worked to significantly improve safety conditions in around 2,300 ready-made garment (RMG) factories. But while much has been achieved, there are also concerns around what will happen when the tenure of the Accord comes to an end next month.

Transforming safety

In 2018, the five year terms of both the Alliance and the Accord finished, but for the latter, its remit was extended and remains in effect until the end of May 2021. Last year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the technical responsibilities of the Accord were transitioned to the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), a permanent national safety monitoring and compliance body for the sector.

There are efforts to renegotiate the Accord to extend and expand its obligations beyond 2021 – and maybe beyond Bangladesh – but nothing concrete has yet been agreed.

“As we reflect on building safety in the last eight years, I think we can say with confidence the Accord has been successful in its efforts to really transform the industry,” says Laura Gutierrez of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC).

“The Accord has brought new levels of transparency, independent building inspections on fire, electrical and structural safety, worker rights trainings, and a trusted complaints mechanism.”

However, with safety an ongoing process, its work needs to continue, Gutierrez says.

“It’s been incredibly successful but it’s work there is not done, and that’s why efforts are underway between unions and brands to extend and expand the agreement to not only protect the progress in Bangladesh but also to expand it to other countries where we see building safety and worker safety threatened. For instance Pakistan.”

This opinion is shared by Clean Clothes Campaign, which raises concerns about the “rushed handover” to the RSC.

“We firmly believe that [the RSC] will not be able to uphold the standards of the previous Accord programme without an international binding agreement,” says CCC’s Christie Miedema. “Brands and factories will only hold their promises if there are real consequences to not doing so. By choosing to put their faith in a national programme without an option of individually being held accountable in court, brands are denying workers and their representatives the power to hold brands legally accountable for their promises and are taking away the possibility of workers in other countries with death trap factories, such as Pakistan, to expect similar protection in the near future.”

Lessons learnt

When it comes to driving change in the garment industry in Bangladesh, Miran Ali, director at the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and STAR Network spokesperson, says: “We can say, with a great deal of confidence, we have, if not the safest garment industry in the world, certainly the most transparent. No other country has anything coming remotely close to the organisations we have for industrial safety.

“The world in 2013 and the world in 2021 are completely different. There is no relation to the industry back then to the industry now. What we had was a national and international tragedy and we have learned from it. Not just the factory owners but the brands, the buyers, the workers. We have all learned from it.”

But building and worker safety has been the exception, Miedema believes, adding that while much was promised in many other fields, there has been very little progress.

“In the past eight years the minimum wage has only been revised twice and is now only half of what workers were asking for and less than a quarter of what they would need for a decent living. The right to freedom of association has only improved marginally and is still massively under pressure, with two major crackdowns happening since 2013.”

Miedema says the pandemic has exacerbated this, with many workers not being paid in full, not receiving compensation when they lose their jobs, and being forced to put their health at risk during lockdowns.

“Brands and retailers in the meantime are still squeezing the price, especially during lockdown, thereby causing these violations. The price of garments has only gone down since 2013; that does not sound like change to me.”

Providing support

Through the RSC, which comprises representation from brands, workers and factory owners, Ali says Bangladesh is continuing the work done by the Accord. But the majority of that work will be financed by the industry itself.

“The lion’s share that has gone into the safety and remediation process in Bangladesh has been paid for by the factories themselves. Having said that, this has been a collaborative process and we are still, regardless of who paid for it, proud of what we have achieved.”

Part of the Accord’s initiative was to create local expertise in building safety so that the work could eventually be taken on by local government agencies. So far, however, the WRC’s Gutierrez says the government has not yet proven capable of assuming all of those responsibilities. But brands will need to step up too.

“As we’ve seen across the supply chain on a number of issues, the law can be perfectly good, which in the case of Bangladesh it is, the building code is good itself, and even if the government is effective in overseeing it, there is still a role that brands should play in the safety of the factories.”

Gutierrez also points to the financial aspect of the work, and holding companies accountable.

Putting work on hold

There is unlikely to be any industry globally that hasn’t been impacted in some way by the Covid-19 pandemic that hit in early 2020. For Bangladesh, its garment sector faced the challenge of factories having to temporarily close, meaning physical inspections could not take place, and then the cancellation or postponement of orders by brands and retailers.

A report earlier this year by the Centre of Policy Dialogue (CFD) found that more than 350,000 workers in the country’s ready-made garment sector have lost their jobs during the pandemic, with many workers laid off without proper compensation.

“The pandemic forced a lot of things on hold for a while,” Gutierrez explains. “Practically speaking, it meant that for a certain period in the last year, inspectors weren’t getting out to factories and that renovations weren’t able to happen. So on a very practical level, [it had an impact].

“There is another aspect, the brand responsibility. The brands are, like many other stakeholders, looking at other issues – the WRC has spent a lot of time working on the cancellation of orders. That has meant workers having severance of wages, so I think that, like so much else going on in the world, our attention has been pulled in so many different ways.”

A digital mapping tool launched last August that tracks the development of ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh revealed 9% of facilities surveyed have permanently closed following the pandemic. This represented 2,334 of 3,342 factories in Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chattogram.

The BGMEA’s Miran says the number is not as significant as reports suggest, and that remediation work hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic.

“Safety is something which is an ongoing process. It doesn’t start or stop on the basis of one single challenge, which in this case is the pandemic. And keep in mind that even during the pandemic, yes there was a period between April last year when our factories were all closed, and between May and August when the Accord and later the RSC could not do inspections. But since September the RSC has been doing factory inspections so there has been no slide whatsoever. Keeping in mind that last year was an existential crisis, the fact that we are still here is a cause for optimism.

“I don’t think things are completely rosy – prices have gone down, the volume of business has gone down, the market has gone down. A lot of the brands we work with are British and if you go through the high street that is a problem. Half of the people I knew are gone now, and we are not yet entirely clear on what the new world will look like. What is certain, however, is that there remains a lot of brands still who have not paid their suppliers, who have reneged on their payments, and who have used various legal strategies to avoid their liabilities. That still exists.”

Protecting progress

Despite the challenges, Ali believes Bangladesh’s garment industry is stronger now than it ever has been.

“Rana Plaza was a national tragedy and I will never belittle the lessons on that, but we are so far beyond that now. To speak about the lessons of Rana Plaza is honestly redundant. We need to talk about the lessons of the now, the present. And the present being, what are we doing about industrial safety today? What does Bangladesh have to teach the rest of the manufacturing countries? What can we do about fairer prices? These are the lessons of today that we need to look at.”

Gutierrez offers a similar opinion. While she describes Bangladesh’s building safety as “gold standard,” she has concerns the industry will become complacent in continuing the work once the Accord’s tenure comes to an end next month.

“Building safety is not static, it requires regular follow-up, regular monitoring, and we can’t go back to a self-monitoring world of factories. That’s what we saw before and what led to Tazreen and Rana Plaza. Just because the factories are safe now, after all the work that was done under the Accord, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be safe tomorrow. You need a rigorous, independent monitoring agency like the Accord to maintain and protect that progress. It’s very easy to slip back into the ways of the past.”