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The Rana Plaza building collapse… 100 days on

A number of initiatives have been launched in response to the Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which expand upon ILO action following previous accidents in the country. The Director of the ILO Office in Dhaka, Srinivas B. Reddy, explains what these initiatives are and the steps that have been taken on the ground.

Article | 05 August 2013
© Munir Uz Zaman / AFP

What action has been taken during the past three months?

Since April 24, when the Rana Plaza building collapsed, claiming 1,127 lives and injuring many more, the ILO has played a lead role in seeking to address the root causes of the disaster and help rehabilitate injured victims. We are working closely with the Government and employers’ and workers’ organizations (the ILO’s tripartite constituents), to help improve workers’ rights and safety in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the ILO sent a high-level mission to Dhaka, headed by the Deputy Director-General for field operations, Gilbert Houngbo. The result of the mission was a Joint Statement, signed on May 4, by the Government and employers’ and workers’ organizations, which set out a six-point response agenda.

What does the response agenda consist of?

The Joint Statement committed the Government of Bangladesh to submitting a set of amendments to its Labour Law, which it did on 15 July, and ILO has commented on it. The response agenda also requires an assessment of all the active RMG factories for fire safety and structural integrity, as well as measures to fix the issues discovered. It also commits the government to recruit, within 6 months, 200 additional inspectors and to ensure that the Department of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Establishments will have been upgraded to a Directorate with an annual regular budget allocation adequate to enable the recruitment of a minimum of 800 inspectors and the development of the infrastructure required for their proper functioning.

It recommends expanding the existing National Tripartite Action Plan on Fire Safety, signed after the Tazreen Fashions factory fire in November 2012. Progress has already been made through an agreement reached on July 25 by the Government, employers and workers to integrate this plan and the Joint Statement to form a comprehensive National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity in the RMG sector.

For those directly affected by the Rana Plaza collapse, a skills training and rehabilitation programme will be launched for those disabled by the disaster and those who were left unemployed.

The Joint Statement also called on the ILO and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to consider launching a Better Work Programme for Bangladesh. Better Work is a partnership programme between the ILO and the IFC, which aims to improve both compliance with international labour standards and competitiveness in global supply chains.

How does this plan fit with the other response initiatives established by brands, retailers, global unions and other institutions since April?

These emerging response initiatives have endorsed and echoed the now integrated National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity (NTPA) and, in several cases, the ILO’s technical support has been asked for to help ensure their implementation and coordination.

For example, the ILO fulfills the role of neutral chair of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, signed by global unions and over 80 fashion brands and retailers. The Accord is a five-year programme aimed at ensuring health and safety measures, including the assessment and remediation of structural integrity and fire safety in factories used by the signatories.

Another initiative, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, brings together 17 US retailers and brands and aims to inspect and set safety standards in 100 per cent of the factories used by the signatories over the next 5 years.

The Sustainability Compact, between the EU, Bangladesh Government and the ILO, published in July, builds on the NTPA and seeks action on labour rights, in particular freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, building structural integrity and occupational safety and health, as well as responsible business conduct by all stakeholders engaged in the RMG and knitwear industry in Bangladesh.

The Compact has assigned a coordinating and monitoring role to the ILO. Coordination between these various initiatives will be vital, to ensure they have the desired impact.

These plans sound good in theory but what tangible action has been taken so far?

For its part, the ILO Office in Dhaka is implementing a US$ 2 million, six-month programme from July to December this year.

The first element is assisting the constituent partners in establishing a system to undertake a preliminary assessment of the safety of factory buildings. The ILO will work with the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) to train 30 specialist teams of structural engineers to undertake these assessments.

In parallel, workers in ready-made garment factories will receive safety training and those injured during the disaster and in previous accidents will begin to receive rehabilitation and skills training.

During the last three months, the ILO has also developed a broader three-year programme to take these actions forward and provide support to several key components of the National Tripartite Action Plan on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity.

This includes ensuring structural integrity assessments by trained engineers of the almost 2,000 factories not covered by the Accord and Alliance and the purchase of necessary equipment. It will also involve training of the 800 labour inspectors referred to earlier and worker and management training in occupational safety and health and worker rights.

Is this the first time that the ILO has worked in this area in Bangladesh?

We have in fact been working closely with the Government and employers’ and workers’ organizations for some time on labour conditions in the garment industry.

For example, since January 2012 a dedicated project on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work has focused on improving workers’ rights in Bangladesh, particularly in the RMG sector. It has worked with the ILO constituents to improve labour legislation and practices in Bangladesh and to develop labour relations based on rights and responsibilities.

Technical experts from the ILO office in Dhaka have been working closely with the Government during the last year on amendments to the country’s labour law, with a view to bringing it into line with international labour standards.

As previously mentioned, we also promote safer work places and have assisted the Government and social partners in developing the national response to the Tazreen factory fire in November 2012. ILO projects have also produced a fire safety video designed to be shown to and understood by all factory workers in the country and is working on a number of outreach efforts to improve knowledge of occupational safety and health best practices.

What are the next steps in the response?

We will work closely with the Government and employers’ and workers’ organizations as they implement the National Tripartite Action Plan on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity in the RMG sector, over the coming weeks and months.

A priority will be to help ensure that skilled engineers are making initial structural integrity and fire safety assessments of garment factory buildings. These will be undertaken by the engineering teams led by BUET and will be underway by September.

Skills training of disabled workers, in partnership with the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), will also be up and running and we will help coordinate services to injured and unemployed Rana Plaza victims through the National Skills Development Council Secretariat.

Training programmes for trade union leaders, mid-level managers and supervisors on occupational safety and health and workers’ rights are also due to begin, along with training to strengthen the labour inspection system.

The ILO will continue to engage with the government and its other constituents with regard to the legislative framework.