International garment buyers have set up two organizations to oversee safety in Bangladeshi factories. There is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which includes more than 190 apparel brands, retailers and importers from over 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is made up of 26 North American buyers, including Walmart and J.C. Penney.
Over the last two years, Accord and Alliance have conducted structural, electrical and fire safety inspections of more than 1,800 factories that manufacture for member companies. In addition, the U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO) has supervised audits of nearly 700 more factories. About 670 factories are awaiting review.
The inspections have shown how dangerous conditions were and remain for workers in these factories.
Accord’s head of public affairs, Joris Oldenziel, said that “all of the 1,250 factories [inspected] had electrical, fire and structural faults that need to be corrected.” He added that for Accord alone, there are “more than 60,000 safety issues currently in the corrective action plans” — an average of 48 failings per factory.
Despite these statistics, Oldenziel is convinced that the reviews have already saved lives. “Many fires have been prevented,” he said.
According to ILO data, 47 buildings containing 100 factories — 4 percent of the 2,500 factories that have been inspected so far — were so potentially dangerous that an expert panel was consulted to determine whether the factories should be evacuated.
The panel, headed by Bangladesh’s inspector general of factories and establishments, ultimately decided that 14 of those buildings, housing 32 factories, should be closed.
The committee also ordered the partial closure of 13 buildings containing 26 factories and ruled that 17 buildings with 32 factories should be allowed to continue operating only under “strict observation” while they implemented the recommendations of the panel.
According to Samantha Maher, the policy director of Labour Behind the Label, these efforts have made a significant impact on factory safety.
“The Accord has done quite a remarkable job,” she said. “Everyone can be confident that none of the buildings that have been inspected are now going to fall down, which is a remarkable achievement.”
While inspections might ensure that garment factories in Bangladesh are less likely to collapse or suffer electrical fires, little seems to have changed on a day-to-day basis for the country’s nearly 4 million garment workers.
A report published this week by Human Rights Watch highlights the abusive conditions many factory workers face, including physical and verbal abuse, forced overtime, withheld wages and unsanitary conditions. The findings were based on interviews with more than 160 workers from 44 factories.
A particular concern identified in the report was how workers seeking to set up trade unions to deal with these issues were often subject to violence, intimidation and loss of employment.
Although a post–Rana Plaza legal amendment made it easier to establish trade unions, Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, the assistant secretary general of the Bangladesh Institute of Legal Studies, says most of the 400 factory-level unions registered in the garment sector are barely able to function.
“Employers don’t want these unions to work and will do everything to prevent them [from] doing so,” he said. “Many workers involved in the unions are intimidated or sacked. It is very difficult for workers to stand up for themselves in garment factories at present.”
The BGMEA’s Shahidullah Azim, however, discounted these concerns. “It is not correct that conditions in factories are poor. Since Rana Plaza, the whole environment in factories has changed. Things are moving in the right direction. And nowadays workers can apply for trade union registration without informing the employer.”
Another positive development concerns the question of compensation. After the Rana Plaza disaster, a fund was established to help those injured by the collapse and the dependents of workers who were killed. A plan was devised in which garment buyers would contribute to the fund and money would be paid out in accordance with U.N.-sanctioned compensation principles. The fund has received only $22 million out of an estimated $30 million needed to fully compensate victims and families, and individual claimants have received just 70 percent of what was promised them. The ILO is now seeking to institutionalize this system, unprecedented in Bangladesh, through a national insurance scheme.
Khatun, the worker who lost her hand in Rana Plaza, says she received about $5,000 in compensation from various sources. Though not a large sum, it is far more than she would have normally received under Bangladeshi law, which mandates that an employer pay $1,600 for the amputation of a hand.
Two years on, she is unemployed, living with her parents and still struggling to come to terms with the disaster. “When I think back to that day, I feel sorry for myself and all the other people affected by that incident,” she said. “But sometimes, when I think about what happened, my mind just goes blank.”