The collapse of Rana Plaza was the deadliest structural failure in modern human history and the worst ever industrial accident to hit the garment industry. A total of 1,138 people died and thousands others were maimed in that accident which many believe had happened because of the sheer negligence of the buildings' owner.
The incident shook Bangladesh's $34 billion ready-made garment (RMG) industry, the second largest in the world behind China. It drew attention to horrific conditions for factory employees, and raised questions about transparency in the global garment industry in which they work. As an aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Bangladesh government rushed to improve safety measures, and human rights and labor advocates called for greater accountability and transparency in the industry.
On the eighth anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, we now look back and pinpoint the six major changes that have taken places in the RMG sector over the last few years.
1. Workplace Safety
The first thing that has seen massive improvement in the last eight years is the workplace safety. Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, two bodies pressured Bangladeshi factories to improve their fire safety, structural safety and electrical safety measures.
"Fire incidents or structural failures take place in different industrial sectors across the world but the magnitude of Rana Plaza incident was unprecedented. We have learnt a lot from that accident but we needed to pay a great price for it," Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, former president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the apex trade association of readymade garment factory owners told The Business Standard.
"Our factories had to spend, at least, on an average, half a million dollars to act in compliance with fire safety, structural safety and electrical safety," said Mohiuddin.
"We will thank the European Union for fixing the problem. We can now claim the garment factories in Bangladesh are one of the safest industries in the world. You even cannot find such compliance in developed countries let alone in our competitor countries like China and Vietnam," Mohiuddin added.
The former BGMEA president said that after the Rana Plaza accident, the concept and attitude towards workplace safety has totally changed.
"Now more than 90% of the factories are compliant as per the international standard. I feel if we can maintain the compliance there will be no problem in future," said Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi, who is also a former president of BGMEA and the managing director of two readymade garment factories: Sepal Garments Limited and Glory Fashion Wear Limited.
2. Green Factories
The second significant improvement that has taken place is the emergence of green factories. Bangladesh is now home to the highest number of platinum rated garment factories in the world, which portrays the country's strong footing in green production.
In 2012, there was only one LEED-certified green factory building in Bangladesh. Now the respective number is 135. Of them, 39 are Platinum-rated, 84 are Gold-rated, 10 are Silver-rated and 2 other green factories are approved by the US Green Building Council, a US-based non-profit organisation to promote sustainability in building design, construction, and operation.
"Look, 500 more garment factories owners have already applied to the organisation to make their garment factories green," said Imranur Rahman, director of BGMEA.
Imranur Rahman, who also owns a Gold-rated green factory Laila Styles Limited in Gazipur, said that they can now save water consumption, carbon footprint and electricity.
"We are using energy saving LED lights to set up solar power on the rooftops, among others," said Imranur Rahman.
3. BGMEA became stricter with membership criteria
The third improvement has taken place in garnering the membership of the apex body BGMEA. Under the trade body's umbrella, there are around 4500 RMG factories. Now those factories who want new membership have to go through a stricter scrutiny process which ensures the applicant factory's structural safety, fire safety and electrical safety.
"BGMEA membership is now very strict; those who want membership now have to ensure 100% compliance in getting membership," said BGMEA President Faruque Hassan.
"The factory owner will have to set up the required numbers of equipment for fire safety, stairs, and gates. All rules are strictly followed," said President Hassan, who is also the managing director of Giant Textiles Limited.
4. Safety Committee
With the arrival of Accord and Alliance in the country, workers of different garment factories become more and more aware of their safety. As per the compliance requirements, a safety committee has been formed in most of the garment factories across the country.
"After the Rana Plaza incident, awareness of safety among the management as well as among workers have increased," said Vidiya Amrit Khan, managing director of Desh Garments Limited.
The task of the Safety Committee includes conducting safety checks (walk-throughs) at the factory to identify safety hazards, responding to employee complaints and suggestions about safety and health and reviewing company accident reports to learn how such accidents can be prevented.
5. RMG Subcontracting Guideline
Another major change has taken place in subcontracting. In 2019, the government issued a guideline in case of subcontracting in the RMG sector. The guideline says only the compliant factories will be eligible for doing the task of subcontractors. It also says that there must be an agreement and the copy of the agreement must be given to the BGMEA and the BKMEA.
According to the guideline, the government-set minimum wages must be ensured for the workers in the subcontracting factories. The structural designs of the subcontracting factories must be approved by the authorities concerned.
6. RMG Sustainable Council
Last year, the country's RMG manufacturers, global brands, and unions officially rolled out the national body RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) to sustain workplace safety. This permanent body comprises equal representation from RMG manufacturers, global apparel companies, and trade unions.
The RMG Sustainable Council was launched to take over the functions of Accord and Alliance that they have been carrying out the task of improvement of the safety standards in the RMG sector in the country.
Though the contract with Accord will end on May 21, this year, BGMEA has to enter into transition and cooperation agreements with Accord because the buyers directly paid to the Accord.
"RMG Sustainable Council cannot work as an independent body as we have still to satisfy many conditions the Accord and Alliance have imposed," said former BGMEA president Mohiuddin who is also a co-chair of the RSC.
Still a long way to go
While in the past eight years, those improvements have taken place, experts concerned with the sector still feel that there is lots to be done yet. For example, RMG workers are not happy with existing labour rights in the country. They alleged that they find it hard to form trade unions in the garment factories as a result they do not have a bargain power.
"In 2018, the government reduced the minimum workers' requirement for union registration from 30% to 20%. However, it is tough to organise such a number of workers as a single factor employs about 10 thousand workers," said Amirul Haque Amin, president of National Garment Workers Federation.
Aside from the labour rights, the garment factory workers have long been alleging that they are deprived of fair wages. Minimum Wage Board does not work for the desired salary increase in the garment sector workers.
"We are not satisfied with the latest minimum wage increase in 2018. We demanded at least Tk16,000, but we got Tk8,000," said Amin, who is also a co-chair of the RMG Sustainable Council.
The next wage board is scheduled to be formed in 2023. However, garment worker leaders said that they will request the government to announce the minimum wage one year earlier because of special reasons.
"The prices of essentials have skyrocketed in the midst of the covid-19," said Amin.
Former BGMEA president Mohiuddin however said their hands are tight in increasing the wages of their workers. "In the past few years, we have improved ourselves as per the compliance requirements but the buyers haven't increased the price. We are not getting value for our product. China works 10% higher value than that of us," said Mohiuddin.