When Rana Plaza collapsed 10 years ago on April 24 and more than 1,000 people were killed, Bangladesh made headlines around the world, with reports describing the poor working condition in the country’s readymade garment factories. Fatullah Apparels was also an unsafe factory at the time.
Fast forward to 2023, and Fatullah Apparels has now become the world’s top knitwear factory certified by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Not only Fatullah Apparels but working conditions and safety standards have also dramatically improved in almost all RMG factories in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh now hosts the highest number of green buildings in the world. It also has a certified RMG building that has gained the top score in the USGBC ranking. Besides, eight of the top 10 RMG factories are located in Bangladesh.
Fatullah Apparels Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Fazlee Shamim Ehsan told The Business Post, “After the Rana Plaza collapse, the global community criticised us. But now they want to know how we made this great improvement.
“After the incident, we planned to ensure factory safety and earn a reputation. Finally, we achieved it. Bangladesh now hosts the safest RMG factories in the world.”
In 2013, Razia Begum was working at an apparel factory in Ashulia. She said fire incidents were common in RMG factories six to seven years ago and workers had to work amid fear.
She also said workers had no rights at the time while factories did not follow the labour law and the wage board. “Now the situation has changed, especially in terms of workplace safety. We feel safe at work now.”
Rights activists, brands, and foreign partners claimed workers are still deprived of their rights though Bangladesh has improved workplace safety.
They said standard wages have not yet been established, there are barriers to joining trade unions, the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) labour law does not allow the formation of trade unions, and worker harassment still exists.
On April 24 in 2013, the eight-storey Rana Plaza in Savar collapsed. The building contained clothing factories, a bank, apartments, and several shops. 1,134 people were killed in the incident while around 2,500 were injured.
It is considered the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history, the deadliest garment factory disaster in history, and the deadliest industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh.
Joly Talukder, general secretary of Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre, told The Business Post 10 years have already passed and the Rana Plaza case trial is still going on.
Even Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, got bail recently, though the apex court later stayed it, she said.
“The rest of the culprits have already got bail. Where is justice? It is alarming for us all.”
How much Bangladesh improved
Before the Rana Plaza collapse, a deadly fire broke out at Tazreen Fashion, an apparel factory in Ashulia, on November 24, 2012. It killed at least 117 RMG workers, and around 200 were injured.
For such deadly accidents in a short span of time, Bangladesh faced criticism across the world. Many brands left the country while the US suspended Bangladesh from their Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme citing unsafe workplace.
“That was a horrible situation. Brands started asking me not to use the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag on apparel labels. Many consumers even started boycotting clothes made here,” Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) Executive President Mohammad Hatem told The Business Post.
Amid this situation, global brands, retailers, and trade unions formed a global agreement named Accord on May 15 in 2013 to improve fire and building safety in Bangladesh’s RMG sector. On July 10 in 2018, 28 major global retailers formed Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Both groups initially planned to work for five years but later extended their tenures. They inspected over 2,000 factories and detected various flaws.
According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Accord provided compliance certificates to only 200 factories out of 1,600 in the country. It later imposed some new conditions for providing certificates, though the companies that earlier applied for certification finished 80-97 per cent of the remedial work by then.
When the tenures of the Accord and Alliance expired, the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) was formed on May 20 in 2020 for inspection in the apparel sector.
BGMEA President Faruque Hassan said, “The Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen Fashion fire were lessons for us. We lost hundreds of workers, but the incidents opened our eyes. We invested a lot of money to improve workplace safety.”
“Now I can say every RMG factory is following the safety guideline, and workers are working without fear. In the last couple of years, there has not been any fire or building collapse in the RMG sector, except for a few isolated incidents.”
Faruque further said, “We not only ensured fire and building safety but also transformed the industry through green initiatives. Now we have at least 800 factories that are following the USGBC guideline, and nearly 200 have already received their green certificates.”
Most of the new entrepreneurs are setting up factories in line with the green initiative, he added.
BGMEA said the country has 195 LEED-certified factories, which is the highest in the world. Of the 195, 69 are platinum, 112 are gold, 10 are silver, and four are certified factories.
Among the top 10 global leading factories, eight are in Bangladesh. Also, 54 factories out of the top 100 are here. Nearly 550 factories are waiting for certification, and almost 100 are being set up as per green initiatives.
Gazi Imon has been working in the apparel sector since 2008. He is also an activist of RMG workers’ rights. He said Bangladesh has improved a lot in terms of workplace safety.
Buyers are inspecting factories regularly, which has forced manufacturers to follow the safety guidelines, he added.
Many initiatives yet to be implemented
In the last 10 years, Bangladesh’s apparel industry improved a lot but still faces criticism from brands and development partners. Even labour leaders have also raised their voices and demanded improvement in workers’ rights situation.
They said the labour act allows trade union formation but workers face trouble from employers’ end to join those. Some factories even fired workers and filed cases when they raised their voices.
Besides, the EPZ labour act is not allowing trade union formation, which contradicts the Bangladesh labour law and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) guideline, they added.
Bangladesh’s two major export destinations – the US and the European Union (EU) – criticised the country several times over labour rights, especially trade union. In May last year, the US government suspended Bangladesh from the US International Development Finance Corporation funding due to concerns about labour rights violations.
Besides, the US ambassadors and the EU delegations in Bangladesh have raised their voices several times to amend the EPZ labour act and ensure workers’ trade union participation without fear.
Bangladesh’s development partners and labour leaders have claimed that the country is paying its workers less than its competitors. They also said many workers, especially women, still face harassment, though the situation has improved compared to the past.
Besides, some factories have forced their workers to work up to 80 hours a week, though the labour act and the ILO have limited it to up to 60 hours.
A worker told The Business Post seeking anonymity that they are forced to work from 8am to 2am on many days. “During the day, we have small breaks to have meals and pray.”
Trade union leader Joly said the ILO and the labour law allow two hours of overtime a day but most factories force workers to do up to six hours.
“Workers also do the extra duty due to low wages. High inflation has made their life very difficult. Some factories have even deprived workers of the proper overtime payment. We have to fight regularly to solve such issues.”
She further said some factories are creating barriers to forming trade unions but allowing “yellow trade unions”. “The workers who are obedient to the factory owners are part of such trade unions.”
The BGMEA president said, “We always welcome trade union formation, and most factories have it. We also want a trade union in the EPZ area, but this needs law amendment.
“We have already talked to the government, and they have also agreed on this. We expect the EPZ labour act will be amended soon.”
He further said, “Buyers are paying us less compared to others. They are not following ethical buying practices. How can we pay workers more in such a situation?”
The government has formed a new wage board and it will fix the new wage structure soon, said the apparel leader. “We expect that workers will get handsome wages when the new structure will be announced.”
Replying to a question about worker harassment and forced labour, Faruque said, “There is no chance for that. When we hear about any such incident, we take instant action.”
“We believe workers are part of our business, and they are also our family members. My door is always open for them.”
Bangladesh Labour Rights Council General Secretary Sohel Rana Shampad said, “The focus is always on the RMG sector, but there are thousands of unsafe non-RMG factories. That is why fires break out in many factories every year, killing many workers.”
“I do not understand why the government only took initiatives for the RMG sector while problems exist in many others.”
He further said, “Considering the ongoing inflation, a minimum wage of Tk 8,000 is not enough for a worker. But except for the RMG sector, most of the others are not following the minimum wage board.”
“Also, dozens of formal sectors have not updated the wage board. It is a violation of labour rights. We demand Tk 24,000 in the minimum wage for all sectors, and we want to see no more accident casualties.”