The new Shomman would ensure the ready-made garment industry follows health and safety standards laid down by Bangladesh legislation

The new Shomman would ensure the ready-made garment industry follows health and safety standards laid down by Bangladesh legislation

Bangladesh's apparel makers are pressing ahead with establishing a separate factory inspection and remediation body, which would operate after existing international health and safety initiatives expire in 2018.

However, experts have warned that there could be political motivation behind the proposal, questioning its rationale and potential effectiveness.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) has proposed the launch of a government-led 'Shomman' system (which means 'honour' in Bengali) to follow up work accomplished by Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

The Alliance last week confirmed it will not extend its tenure once it reaches the end of its five-year term next year, while the Accord is setting up a new three-year agreement that will run to 2021, albeit with a smaller number of brand signatories.

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But a former senior government official told just-style that Shomman will undermine the already-functioning Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC) within the state-run Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), which was created for a similar purpose.

"It's a dual proposal. I don't see its justification," says Mikail Shipar, who until recently served as secretary of the ministry of labour and employment.

"The BGMEA should instead lend its support to strengthen the RCC, which has legality," he told just-style. "It's a political issue. I doubt Shomman would get local and international recognition and even acceptability from trade unions," adds AKM Masum ul Alam, an occupational safety and health expert.

Siddiqur Rahman, BGMEA president, disagrees. He told just-style: "The Accord and Alliance are foreign and Shomman will be local under the leadership of the government."

After the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, the Accord – comprising more than 200 European retailers and brands – and the Alliance – representing 28 North American retailers – were formed that same year to help improve fire safety and structural integrity at apparel units within Bangladesh.

According to the plans developed by the BGMEA, Shomman would function under the ministry of labour and employment and ensure the clothing manufacturing industry follows health and safety standards laid down by Bangladesh legislation.

However, Rahman has said the BGMEA would prefer that responsibility for operating the system would lie with the Prime Minister's Office.

Even though the plans are at an initial stage, according to the BGMEA boss the new system would be launched before June 2018, when the Accord and Alliance initiatives are supposed to be wound up.

Faruque Hassan, senior vice president of the BGMEA, says Shomman would bring together all clothing industry partners, including the government, retailers, and trade unions.

Financing for the platform would come from the government, the BGMEA, foreign governments (such as Japan) and development bodies, including the World Bank, he adds.

He says the idea is to bring factories not tied to the Accord and Alliance under the agency so that they can improve compliance.

Out of 3,500 export-oriented apparel firms in Bangladesh, the Accord and Alliance have only managed to cover around 2,200 businesses, with the remainder lacking their guidance and assistance regarding health and safety standards, according to data from released by the government, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Accord and the Alliance.

But there is concern that should Shomman become a stand-alone body, it will fail to expand its mandate to many of the unimproved companies.

Masum ul Alam believes that Shomman would not be effective unless it worked with the RCC. Either that, or they become one expanded body, he argues.

In any case, establishing a domestic body that mirrors the work of the Accord and the Alliance would require substantial investment and technical capacity, says Alam, who teaches safety at a private university in Dhaka.

Moreover, he says the ILO had provided financial and technical support to establish the RCC in the past two years.

The Accord, Alliance and the ILO did not respond to written requests for comments from just-style on the planned agency.

However, speaking generally about a future health and safety system for Bangladesh's clothing industry, Alliance country director Jim Moriarty says: "The Alliance is working with capable third-party organisations and trusted partners on the ground to sustain a holistic approach to safety upon the Alliance's departure – one that combines safety improvements, training, and initiatives to ensure that men and women have a voice in their workplaces over the long term.

"We will continue to work with the BGMEA, ILO, and the Government of Bangladesh to leverage the success of the Alliance and help ensure that the garment industry of Bangladesh becomes one of the safest in the world."