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Bangladesh: Improving safety in the garment industry

An ILO programme is helping garment factories in Bangladesh improve safety and minimize the risk of another tragedy like the one that claimed more than 1,100 lives in 2013.

Feature | 17 January 2018
DHAKA (ILO News) – Anwar Hossain, General Manager of the Towel Tex factory says he had never heard of the labour inspectorate before the April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza, in the outskirts of Dhaka – one of the worst industrial disasters in recent history. 

The tragedy claimed the lives of 1,136 people and injured many more. It also galvanized national and international action to improve safety at garment factories in Bangladesh, which supply many of the world’s clothing brands. The eight-story Rana Plaza housed five such factories.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the immediate priority was to assess the structural, electrical and fire safety of more than 3,600 export-oriented garment factories. Of the total, more than 1,500, including Towel Tex, were inspected with support from the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Following the inspection recommendations, the factory made a number of changes including building a wall between the dyeing shed and the boiler room, widened walkways on the factory floor, installing exit lights and developing an evacuation plan.

Anwar Hossain also recognizes the more active role of the labour inspectorate, which ILO has worked closely with since Rana Plaza to build its capacity and effectiveness.

“I had never even heard of the Department of Inspections for Factories and Establishments. But now we have regular surprise inspections, almost one a quarter,” says Hossain. And that, he says, helps him improve safety in the factory. “We want to be compliant, but without inspections we could never be sure.”

The ILO responded rapidly to the Rana Plaza disaster by working with the Government, employers’ and workers’ organizations to develop a national plan of action to improve fire and building safety. In order to help implement the plan, the ILO, with support from Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, launched the Improving Working Conditions in the Ready-Made Garment Sector Programme in September 2013.

Never again

The main goal of the programme is to enhance safety in factories so that the country should never again experience a tragedy like the Rana Plaza collapse.

Training in occupational safety and health (OSH) is an important component of the programme. Shahidul Islam, Deputy Compliance Manager for the Masco Group – a major garment producer – says he learned a lot about chemical safety during the training, something critical considering hundreds of different chemicals are used in the production process and stored in the factory warehouses. “After the training I decided to bring in a number of changes. This was much more than simply rearranging a bunch of bottles on a shelf, and required a lot of work. But we managed to pull it off.” As one of the master trainers trained by the ILO’s programme in collaboration with the Bangladesh Employers Federation, Islam has in turn trained co-workers who have then gone on to train others. “You can talk to any of the workers here. They know about safety and the rules they are supposed to follow,” he says.

The government has praised the programme. “By supporting the Government, employers as well as workers organizations, a strong foundation for workplace safety in the RMG (ready-made garments) sector has been established,” said State Minister of Labour and Employment Muhammad Mujibul Haque.

Chowdhury Ashiqulalam, Member Secretary of the National Coordination Committee for Workers Education (NCCWE) also acknowledged the importance of the programme. “The Rana Plaza disaster brought home the dangers faced by many workers in the Bangladesh RMG sector. While there has been good progress over the past few years to improve factory safety and workers’ awareness of safety issues, much still remains to be done. It is vital that the progress made under this initiative is not allowed to fade away. Good practices and lessons learnt in making RMG workplaces safer need to be replicated in other sectors across the country,” he said.

In a review of the first phase of the programme, the ILO listed some of the key achievements:
  • Building and fire safety were improved. This included the inspection of 1,549 factories for structural, fire and electrical safety, the harmonization of safety standards, and support for follow-up of remedial measures.
  • The labour inspection system was strengthened. A labour inspection reform roadmap was created, a labour inspection strategy identifying priority areas and industries was developed and 239 inspectors completed a 40-day training programme.
  • Progress was made in building a culture of safety in the workplace. This included improving the legislative and policy environment and improving the capacity of government, employers’ and workers’ organizations to manage occupational safety and health (OSH) issues. More than 800,000 workers were trained on essential OSH.
  • Injured Rana Plaza victims were given support. Almost 300 survivors trained in livelihood skills, more than 3,000 given career counselling, and 66 provided psychosocial counselling.
In addition, the Better Work Bangladesh programme – a collaboration between the ILO and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – works with over 140 factories and more than 300,000 workers as it seeks to improve working conditions and promote competitiveness in the garment industry.

While the first phase of the initiative delivered many key achievements, the process of enhancing workplace safety in the Bangladesh garment sector must continue. For this reason a second phase has been developed to run until 2023 through the ongoing support of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

“Our common goal is for all garment factories to be safe and to develop the capacity of the Government, employers and workers alike so that international partner support is no longer needed,” said Gagan Rajbhandari, ILO Bangladesh Country Director a.i.