Improving working conditions in the ready made garment industry: Progress and achievements

September 2016

A key sector for Bangladesh

The Bangladesh Ready-Made Garment industry has grown over the space of a few short decades to become the second largest in the world. The RMG sector has become a key driver of the Bangladesh economy and the nation’s development. RMG exports totalled US$24.5 billion (2013-14) accounting for over 80% of the nation’s export earnings and employing around 4 million workers, an estimated 55-60% of whom are women.

No more business as usual

The loss of 1,136 lives when Rana Plaza collapsed on 24 April 2013 sent shockwaves worldwide. Coming just months after the fatal fire at Tazreen Fashions in which 112 died it was clear that the Bangladesh Ready Made Garment (RMG) sector had reached a crucial juncture. Business could not continue as usual. Fundamental changes relating to safety, inspection and compliance had to be made if the lives of over four million workers were to be safeguarded and the confidence of global buyers retained.

The ILO response

The ILO responded quickly to the Rana Plaza tragedy with a high level mission to Dhaka at the start of May 2013, which agreed immediate and medium term actions with the Government of Bangladesh and employers’ and workers’ organizations. These were integrated into the National Tripartite Plan of Action on fire safety and structural integrity (NTPA), which was developed following the Tazreen factory fire in November 2012. The ILO since launched a US$31.4 million, three-and-a-half year programme funded by Canada, the Netherlands and UK to support implementation of the NTPA and improve working conditions in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector. Key elements are already being implemented, including building and fire safety assessments; labour inspection reforms; occupational safety and health; rehabilitation and skills training as well as the launch of Better Work Bangladesh.

Ensuring RMG factories are safe

Following the collapse of the Rana Plaza it was decided that 3,508 export-oriented RMG factories should undergo structural, fire and electrical safety inspections.

Two initiatives representing international brands and retailers: the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety have carried out inspections of the factories which their member companies source from. As part of its RMG programme supported by Canada, the Netherlands and UK, ILO supported the national initiative of the Government of Bangladesh to carry inspections of the factories not covered by Accord or Alliance. By 31 December 2015 the inspections had been concluded. In total three initiatives inspected 3,780 factories of which 1,549 were assessed through the national initiative. A total of 39 factories have been closed for posing an immediate danger to workers.

Strengthening the labour inspectorate

The Tazreen and Rana Plaza disasters brought into stark relief the weak capacity at all levels in Bangladesh to effectively ensure safety and acceptable working conditions in the RMG sector. It was clear that the labour inspectorate required a complete overhaul if it was to be effective. As a result, the Government of Bangladesh made a series of major commitments to rebuild the Department of Inspections of Factories and Establishments (DIFE). The inspection service was upgraded to a department in January 2014, high level leadership installed, positions for 392 new inspectors created and budget boosted from US$900,000 in 2013-14 to US$4.1 million in 2015-16. By May 2015, 199 new inspectors (51 female) had been recruited or appointed bringing the total to 284.

As part of the reform of DIFE, a labour inspection strategy and road map has been agreed between ILO and the Ministry of Labour that forms the basis for ILO support to this reform process. Standard operating procedures for DIFE, an inspection check list as well as more effective information management systems are all being developed. These will significantly strengthen the systems which form the foundation upon which DIFE operates.


In addition, basic equipment such as motorcycles, office and inspection equipment is being provided to DIFE so that it can function effectively. Meanwhile, the planned establishment of an accountability unit within DIFE as well as the launch of a public data base and website where inspection reports can be accessed represent a step towards transparency and openness for the inspection service.


Although the recruitment of inspectors is a positive development, both new and existing staff need intensive capacity building. As part of its reform efforts DIFE has implemented a number of training programmes for its inspectors. These include a recently concluded 40-day foundational training course helping 160 labour inspectors gain the skills needed to boost working conditions and worker safety in Bangladesh. 

Strengthening the fire service

Recognizing the vital role of the Fire Service and Civil Defence Department (FSCD), emphasis has been placed on enhancing its capacity to carry out inspections and respond to incidents. The Government of Bangladesh has boosted the strength of the FSCD with the number of fire service staff working as inspectors up from 55 to 265.

ILO, with support from the US Department of Labor, is supporting this process by providing comprehensive training. A core of master trainers has been created within FSCD to build the skills of colleagues nationwide. Fire Service staff can now more effectively inspect factories, develop emergency action plans and carry out evacuation drills to ensure factory occupants evacuate buildings safely when the alarm sounds. Fire Service staff are also being trained on how to effectively follow up on inspection reports in a systematic manner and to collaborate with their counterparts from the Department of Inspections for Factories and Establishments. In September 2016 a major new training course was launched for fire inspectors on electrical safety – electrical faults being the cause of 75 percent of fires in the RMG sector. Meanwhile, ILO is also seeking to acquire for the fire service mobile training towers to help further enhance its operational ability.

Beyond inspections

The completion of RMG factory inspections is an important step towards boosting safety in the sector, however no factory can be considered safe until it has successfully undergone a remediation process.

Considerable efforts are underway to enhance the capacity of, and collaboration between, regulatory authorities responsible for building and worker safety to ensure that remediation work is implemented and monitored effectively. ILO is working to help develop guidelines for Detailed Engineering Assessments (DEA) that some factories need to carry out following initial inspections. By the end of July 2016, 547 CAPs had been developed for National Initiative factories. A number of DIFE inspectors are being trained in CAP development and a ‘CAP kit’ to help factories undertake this task has been devised. Collaboration between government regulators is essential. Fire inspectors will carry out factory visits alongside labour inspectors and are being trained to help explain the fire and electrical observations of assessment reports to them. Efforts are also being made to involve RAJUK in the process.


With the shift from conducting assessments to handing over reports to factories and the preparation for remediation through CAPs and DEAs, a new strategy for the post inspection period is needed. A Remediation Coordination Cell is being planned that will be launched in 2017 to oversee remediation work of factories under the national initiative. This cell will be staffed by officers from the labour inspectorate and fire service who will be supported by technical experts provided by ILO.


Meeting the cost of remediation is a major obstacle for many factories. ILO together with IFC have therefore undertaken a study on remediation costs and access to funding issues that will highlight recommendations and possible courses of action in this regard. 

Enhancing occupational health and safety

Building a culture of Occupational Safety and Health and the skills to implement it is a major challenge for the RMG sector. Efforts are therefore underway supported by ILO to reinforce the capacity of workers, supervisors and managers in the sector to improve the safety of their workplaces. Through training and education and the support of broad awareness campaigns and materials, workers and employers will benefit from improved safety practices and be better able to fulfil the objectives of the National Action Plan on Fire and Building Safety.

An initiative launched under the ILO’s RMG programme in late 2014 has seen a core group of 114 master trainers formed from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers Export Association (BKMEA), Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF) as well as the private sector.

A second phase which was launched on 17 May 2015 will see the master trainers head out to 400 RMG factories and train mid-level and line supervisors. By the end of July 2016, 8,038 mid-level manager/supervisors had been trained. In late September 2016, a further stage of this process will begin when they start to pass on the OSH knowledge to 750,000 to 800,000 workers. By doing so they will help create a culture of workplace safety and implement practical measures to reduce the risk of accidents.

Trade union trainers and women union leaders/organizers groups have also been organized under the auspices of the National Council for the Coordination of Workers' Education (NCCWE - covering 13 workers federations) to help increase the participation of workers in Safety Committees and to enhance women workers’ participation in OSH actions at factory level. A similar program is being developed together with the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC - covering 9 federations). A second phase of this initiative will see those trained pass on their skills to help develop awareness of safety issues amongst 2,700 workers.


With the issue of the Implementation rules of the Bangladesh Labour Act in October 2015 OSH committees can now be established. ILO is supporting this process by working with DIFE to establish a number of committees as part of a pilot which aims to establish 100 committees by the end of 2016.


To support the functioning of the committees an ‘OSH Kit’ is under preparation. This will include materials to help the committee members both better understand key OSH issues as well as carry out their tasks. In addition to basic information on key OSH areas, the kits will contain checklists to help members carry out their daily/weekly checks, while basic forms (such as how to record meeting minutes) will provide practical support.


ILO is supporting the Department of Inspections for Factories and Establishments in the organisation of a first ever National OSH Day on 28 April 2016. A major OSH campaign is also planned for the 2nd half of 2016 to help build awareness of OSH amongst workers, managers and owners. 

Better Work Bangladesh

Better Work is a collaboration between the ILO and IFC. The objective of the Better Work Programme is to improve working conditions and promote competitiveness in the global garment industry. It does so by promoting compliance with international labour standards and national law in global supply chains as a basis for building socially responsible export strategies, and by enhancing enterprise-level economic and social performance.

The Better Work programme commenced its operations in Bangladesh in late 2014 and during 2015 became fully operational.

The Better Work model begins by getting to know the intricacies of each factory, building their trust in the programme and encouraging factories to take full ownership of compliance concerns. The first phase also requires that each factory, with the guidance of Enterprise Advisors (EAs) go through a self-evaluation of their working conditions. The interactions with the factories go beyond providing advisory services, to creating factory improvement plans, getting them to identify compliance deficiencies, and examining the sophistication of their Worker Participation Committees in relationship to their ability to resolve compliance issues.

As of July 2016, 96 factories were registered with over 197,000 workers, 54% of whom are females. In all, 19 international buyer partners are currently participating in the programme. 82 factory assessments have also been completed. Examples of activities include advisory visits/meetings conducted to develop compliance improvement plans; training on supervisory skills, financial literacy, industrial relations and workplace cooperation. Better Work is collaborating with the Accord and Alliance to draft guidelines for forming functional Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) committees and is also supporting factories to run elections for Participation Committees. Better Work has also held a series of consultations with trade unions so that they better understand its work and can collaborate accordingly.

Supporting rehabilitation for Rana Plaza survivors

In the aftermath of the collapse, ILO collaborated with GIZ and Action Aid Bangladesh to carry out an assessment of the needs of Rana Plaza victims. As a result, it was possible to develop a reintegration and rehabilitation programme that met the needs of victims and to identify active partners able to provide such services. In all ILO, has supported 300 injured workers who received counselling and livelihoods training in collaboration with NGOs Action Aid and BRAC. As of March 2016, 289 of these workers were either in paid employment of self-employed. Although most workers are in employment many continue to require ongoing medical assistance and support to cope with the challenges of returning to work after the trauma of Rana Plaza while others, who have set up small businesses require further mentoring. For this reason, ILO is planning to continue its support to this group.

A vulnerability assessment and after award services are being provided to Rana Plaza victims and family members. These assessments are being carried out with the collaboration of the International Organization for Migration and various civil society organizations. By the end of December 2015, 3,137 people had taken part in the assessments where they received career, financial and family counselling to help them better utilize compensation awards and develop a re-employment strategy.

In view of the fact that many of those who received counselling and livelihoods training from ILO require ongoing assistance, further support will be provided to them based on the results of the vulnerability assessments and NGO mapping report.

The Rana Plaza Coordination Cell, with the support of ILO’s RMG project has organized two training sessions on health and safety for rescue workers and community volunteers who took part in the Rana Plaza Collapse. Around 50 volunteers have received training on how to provide ongoing support to Rana Plaza survivors to prepare them to combat any future accidents in the Savar area.

Compensation for Rana Plaza survivors

A coordinated approach was required to provide income and health protection to the victims of Rana Plaza and their dependents. ILO has played a major role in this process, undertaking a coordination role as well as providing technical expertise on the design and operation of a compensation scheme in line with ILO Convention No.121 concerning benefits in the case of employment injury. Agreement to provide compensation was formalised through the Rana Plaza Arrangement signed in November 2013 between the Bangladesh Ministry of Labour, leading buyers, employers’ and workers’ organizations as well as NGOs.

In all some 2,895 claims (720 deceased, 2,027 injured and 148 missing) were received by the Rana Plaza Claims Administration relating to over 5,171 injured workers and dependents of the deceased and missing workers. An additional 630 claims were handled separately by retailer Primark relating to New Wave Bottom workers. The Rana Plaza Compensation Fund was fully funded, having received the US$ 30 million needed to make full compensation payments to all victims and their dependants. Final payments were completed by late 2015.

Establishment of an Employment Injury Social Protection Scheme

ILO actively promotes policies and provides assistance to countries to help extend adequate levels of social protection to all members of society. The experience of setting up a mechanism to deliver compensation in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza highlighted the need for a national Employment Injury Protection and Rehabilitation scheme to be established. Such a scheme will benefit workers and industry alike. Workers will receive payment in case of injury. Employers will benefit from low-cost and no-fault accident compensation insurance for workers. Such a scheme would also make the Bangladesh industry more attractive to international brands and retailers who would no longer fear being dragged into compensation issues.

ILO is working closely with the Government of Bangladesh and Germany to establish a national Employment Injury Protection and Rehabilitation scheme. A preliminarily feasibility study was carried out during 2015 which showed such a scheme is affordable and that the legal framework can be adapted without major changes. It further identified the steps needed over the short-term as well as over the next 3-5 years. This would see the introduction of an interim bridging solution as well as the development of a national scheme that is affordable and sustainable over time for all workers in Bangladesh.


There has been a lot of discussion with counterparts so that they are more familiar with the concept. The issue of costing and its effect on production costs charged to buyers are crucial elements for all parties. The international players have an indirect key role. A comprehensive ‘Establishment Survey’ is now being launched that will take some months to complete and will provide hard data on the accident rate in industries including RMG, construction, retail, and services; economic sectors representing 45% of national GDP. With this credible costings for different benefit package options can be made. It is planned to start with a pilot of 25 -50 RMG factories which are willing to participate before widening to other sectors. Realistically it may be 5-6 years before the full scheme is launched.


Coordination and collaboration

ILO has played a leading role to help coordinate the response to the Rana Plaza collapse. The Government of Bangladesh formally asked the ILO to assist in the implementation and coordination of the NTPA. The ILO works with the National Tripartite Committee (government, workers’ and employers’ organizations), the Accord and Alliance to help ensure coordination.

The ILO serves as the neutral chair of the Accord, which brings together more than 150 international brands and retailers who have suppliers in Bangladesh, and two global unions (IndustriALL, UNI Global). ILO also cooperates closely with the Alliance on issues relating to factory inspections and remediation.

ILO is the neutral chair of the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee that oversees the compensation process and is the trustee of the Rana Plaza Trust Fund that manages donations.

Furthermore, ILO is part of the “3+5+1” group. This brings together three Bangladesh Secretaries (Labour, Commerce and Foreign Affairs); five Ambassadors (US, EU, Netherlands, Canada and a 5th EU member state -- filled on rotation), and the ILO to follow progress made in commitments made under the National Tripartite Plan of Action and the EU Compact

Enhancing workers’ rights

ILO is providing technical assistance for trade union organizations to improve the capacity of workers to organize through a workers education programme organised in collaboration with the National Coordination Committee for Workers Education (NCCWE) and the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC).

The programme aims at creating an enabling environment for worker organizations and collective bargaining at factory level that will lead to workers participating in occupational safety and health as well as rights related matters. Recognising that the majority of garment workers are women, special emphasis is also being placed on training women trade union leaders and organizers on key labour rights.

Furthermore, initiatives carried out by ILO under the umbrella of its Ready Made Garment Sector programme are also helping workers and their representatives to exercise their rights and improve labour-management cooperation at the enterprise level. Funded by the US Department of Labor, Norway and Denmark the projects address specific challenges faced by workers’ and employers’ organisations by building local capacity in relation to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

In all, the capacity of over 2,500 workers’ representatives, trade union organizers, mid-level managers and employers’ organization members has been enhanced through various training events.

A process is ongoing to set up a dispute settlement and mediation system with the Department of Labour to help address anti-union discrimination and terminations. A pilot hotline/telephone service has been launched to address labour disputes and grievance related issues. Meanwhile an online registration process and electronic database established within the Department of Labour is helping facilitate trade union registration and transparency. In addition, representatives of government, employers and workers organizations as well as Industrial Relations Institutes (IRI) have been trained on the use of Interest Based Negotiation (IBN) techniques to help develop mutual trust and cooperation. The physical infrastructure of the IRIs is also being rehabilitated and their capacity built so they can play a more effective role in enhancing labour relations across all industrial sectors.

On 26 September 2015, a new initiative launched by ILO funded by the Government of Sweden that sets out to enhance workplace rights and industrial relations in the Bangladesh Ready-Made Garment Sector. 

An agreement to launch the project was signed in New York in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meeting by Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Isabella Lövin, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and Secretary of the Bangladesh Ministry of Labour and Employment Mikail Shipar. The event was witnessed by Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali.

Sweden and Denmark will fund the initiative titled ‘Promoting Social Dialogue and Harmonious Industrial Relations in the Bangladesh Ready-Made Garment Industry’ which will run until the end of 2020.

The project will enhance labour relations through improved dialogue between employers and workers, particularly at workplace level. Conciliation and arbitration mechanisms will be strengthened to become a more effective, trusted system and the capacity of workers and employers enhanced to engage in social dialogue and collective bargaining as well as to make effective use of dispute prevention and resolution mechanisms. Given the large presence of women in the workforce, efforts will be made to fully incorporate their interests.