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

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 some 4.2 million workers, 80% 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$27.8 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

As part of its RMG programme ILO is supporting the national initiative of the Government of Bangladesh to carry out structural, fire and electrical safety inspections of some 1,800 RMG factories.
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 1,687 factories which their member companies source from.
During 2014 the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) undertook inspections of 471 RMG factories under the national initiative. In January 2015, two private sector companies TUV-SUD Bangladesh Pvt Ltd., and Veritas Engineering & Consultant were engaged to carry out structural, fire and electrical safety inspections of the remaining national initiative factories. The companies commenced their inspections on 22 January 2015. The ILO is helping to coordinate inspections and has provided technical support, including training and logistics.

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$3 million in 2014-15. By April 2015, 197 new inspectors (54 female) had been recruited or appointed bringing the total to 276.
Although the recruitment of inspectors is a positive development, both new and existing staff need intensive capacity building. ILO is implementing a comprehensive programme to train inspectors as well as to enhance governance and accountability of the labour inspection system. A labour inspection road map has been agreed between ILO and the Ministry of Labour that forms the basis for ILO support to this reform process. 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.

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.

Beyond inspections

The completion of RMG factory inspections is an important step towards boosting safety in the sector. However it must be seen as part of a wider 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. Looking forward, the challenge is to maintain momentum already created. Bangladesh must ready its institutional, regulatory and oversight mechanisms relating to building and fire safety to ensure a safe working environment once support from external partners ends.

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 fulfill the objectives of the National Action Plan on Fire and Building Safety.

An initiative launched under the ILO’s RMG programme in late 2014 sees the training of 100 master trainers from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers Export Association (BKMEA), Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF) as well as the private sector. They will then train 7,500 supervisors who will in turn train up to 750,000 workers.

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) intended to 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).

Launching a Better Work Programme for 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.

Better Work Bangladesh has completed initial work while factory and buyer outreach is ongoing through learning seminars for interested factories. In the initial stages emphasis is being placed on self-diagnosis and advisory processes to help factories review their management systems and develop action plans. In 2015 it is expected that the Programme will reach 100 factories from the overall target of 300 factories by the end of the first phase of the Programme.

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.

Compensation for Rana Plaza survivors

Following the Rana Plaza collapse, a coordinated and systematic approach was required to provide income and health protection to the victims and their dependents. In September 2013, representatives of the Government, the garment industry both locally and internationally, trade unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) came together to form the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee (RPCC).

With the ILO acting as a neutral chair, the purpose was to develop a comprehensive and independent process that would deliver financial and medical support to the victims, their families and dependents in a predictable manner consistent with international labour standards concerning employment injury benefits (ILO Convention No.121).
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. ILO is also trustee of the Rana Plaza Trust Fund set up to manage donations.
By late 2014 more than 2,800 claims had been received relating to over 5,000 injured workers and dependents of the deceased. By April 2015, a total of around USD24 million had been made available by brands, retailers as well as a variety of other donors for compensation. Awards in respect of almost all claims had been made as had partial payments on a pro rata basis relating to funds available.
In addition, as part of the above compensation scheme the retailer Primark has provided compensation directly to approximately 630 beneficiaries from the New Wave Bottoms factory that was based in Rana Plaza. Once payments had been made, ILO has supported a vulnerability assessment of recipients to ensure that those who had received funds could take advantage of training or other support services available.

Establishment of an Employment Injury Insurance 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 an Employment Injury Insurance (EII) Scheme to be established. This would benefits employees, spread the financial risk amongst employers and enhance the image and reputation of the Bangladesh RMG sector in the eyes of the world.

At an event held in Dhaka 24 January 2015 the operation of an EII scheme was explained and discussed with stakeholders representing government, employers, unions and civil society. It was proposed by ILO that a more detailed feasibility study is carried out as the next step in order to determine with more accuracy what the actual costs would be as well as to better highlight what benefits to employees and employers would be delivered.

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 working with the Government of Bangladesh and employers' and workers' organizations to strengthen dialogue and improve working conditions. Funded by the US Department of Labor and the Royal Norwegian Government two projects address specific challenges faced by workers’ and employers’ organisations by building local capacity in relation to freedom of association and collective bargaining. These initiatives target workers in the RMG sector as well as other major export orientated sectors such as shrimp and leather.

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. Recognising that the majority of garment workers are women, special emphasis is being placed on training women trade union leaders and organizers on key labour rights. Practical knowledge and skills are also being provided that will enable women leaders to educate and organize workers at factory level in order to improve working conditions in the RMG sector.

Representatives of government, employers and workers organizations as well as Industrial Relations Institutes have been trained on the use of Interest Based Negotiation (IBN) techniques to help develop mutual trust and cooperation. A process is also ongoing to set up a dispute settlement and mediation system with the Department of Labour which should help address anti-union discrimination and terminations. In addition, a significant public advocacy campaign targeting over 100,000 workers and other stakeholders on rights and workplace cooperation is underway in order to promote a greater dialogue among the public.