Robiul Islam, 29, has been a sewing operator in apparel sector since 2009; Jahidul Islam Sabuj has remained employed in a sweater factory since 2012 – both of them admitted that the apparel industry had gone through a paradigm shift in terms of safety standard since the Rana Plaza collapse on April 24, 2013.
Today marks the fateful day when the garment factory came crushing down killing hundreds that sent a shockwave through the entire apparel world which commanded attention – safety first.
“Even six to seven years ago, the factories were not as safe for workers as they are today. Now safety is the prime concern for the owners,” Robiul told The Business Post when asked about whether he finds any difference between then and now.
Similarly, Jahidul echoed the same as his peer worker.
“After Rana Plaza collapse, we had a constant fear about accident that haunted us quite a long time. But now we are working without any fear,” he gave vent to his feelings.
“Now we know what we should do in case of accident. The factory has installed enough equipment to protect us from accident. On the other hand, buyers inspect our workplace regularly.”
It needs no saying that the Rana Plaza collapse took many lives and left many permanently injured, but the deadly accident set the foundation for a massive improvement in working conditions in the country’s RMG sector.
According to the RMG manufacturers, the transformation, including better compliance and more green initiatives, has pushed Bangladesh’s clothing industry forward to become a role model for others over the last nine years.
“A lot of money had been invested in factories to develop infrastructure and install fire and electrical safety equipment,” they said.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) president Faruque Hassan claimed that now they are the role model in the world when it comes to ensuring workers’ safety.
As part of the safety initiative, South-East Group got a facelift by switching to green initiative through investing around Tk 200 crore.
“Though I am struggling to get the return on my investment, I am happy that my workers are working in a safe place,” said Mahbubur Rahman Lucky, managing director, South-East Group.
In 2013, Fakir Fashion was non-compliant with around 7,000 workers.
With scores of workplace safety certifications from BSCI, Accord, WRAP, SEDEX etc. the industry has around 18,000 workers currently.
Fakir Fashion Managing Director Kamruzzaman Nahid said the Rana Plaza incident inspired him to improve workplace safety. Nipa Group Managing Director Md Khosru Chowdhury argued that when he moved from non-compliance to compliance, he had to invest Tk 20 crore for the job.
“I spend Tk 1 crore every year for compliance issues like certification, material purchase and officials’ remunerations,” he said.
On April 24, 2013, an unauthorised eight-storied commercial building called Rana Plaza situated in Savar collapsed.
This accident left more than 1,134 lives and over 2,500 injured. The victims are mostly apparel workers. Bangladesh had faced a wide-spread criticism over workplace safety and many western buyers stopped placing orders.
Following the deadly incident, the US and European buyers formed Accord and Alliance to reform Bangladesh’s apparel sector’s workplace environment.
Basically, these two organisations helped RMG workplace become safe. Now RMG sustainability council is taking care of this sector.
According to the BGMEA, Bangladesh has 158 LEED certified green readymade garment factories while around 500 are in the pipeline for certification.
“Now we are able to recover our image. Most of the reputed buyers have started purchase from Bangladesh,” said BGMEA president Faruque.
Mohammad Hatem, executive president, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told The Business Post “We mourn the deaths of all Rana Plaza victims. This horrible incident alerted us to workplace safety.”
“Still there are some fire incidents in the factories but there is no causality because our workers are now well-trained and we have high-quality fire extinguishers,” he added.
The RMG workers’ leaders, however, claimed that many factories are yet to ensure safety standard, particularly those subcontract-based factories that do not give a damn to safety issues.
They said their safety is in paper only but not in reality.
“Previously, Accord and Alliance watched them which is now done by RMG sustainability council that is lax in monitoring,” opined Shahidullah Chowdhury, president, Bangladesh Trade Union Centre.
He claimed that though the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) is tasked with monitoring the factories, its officials always try to protect the owners’ interest.
However, DIFE Inspector General Md Nasir Uddin Ahmed turned down all allegations, claiming that their staff members are dedicated to ensuring workers’ safety at first hand.
“If anyone has specific allegation about corruption of my officials, please do not hesitate to contact us. We will take action,” vowed the official.
BGMEA president Faruque Hassan said the RMG makers have to prioritise safety standard for their own interest and they will do that.
“But the problem lies elsewhere. Our buyers are reluctant to raise prices. Though they increased it in recent times, it is still not enough compared to the hike in raw material price,” he explained. “So buyers should understand that they have some responsibilities too.”