Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building collapse and the deaths of more than 1,100 workers in April 2013 triggered calls for better conditions in the garment industry. From that singular event, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was created to drive improvements, but a year later and despite some real progress, there is still much more to do.
Reversing decades of sweatshop conditions suddenly exposed by the building collapse will take time and a lot of money. Work to bring Bangladeshi factories used by North American retailers up to acceptable fire and building safety standards will cost more than $100 million and take at least 18 months to complete, according to the alliance’s first annual report released this week.
The alliance was formed a year ago by a group of North American apparel companies, retailers and brands, including Gap and Wal-Mart. Over that span the alliance has inspected all 587 member factories, developed worker empowerment initiatives to amplify worker voices on safety issues, and made “major financial investments to support factory improvements and shared the results of our work openly and transparently,” said Ellen Tauscher, independent chair of the alliance.
In addition to the inspection of member factories, the alliance cites these accomplishments in the report:
- The alliance recommended the closure (or partial closure) of 10 unsafe factories.
- Members backed more than $100 million in capital for their respective supply chains and provided several finance options including short- to medium-term loan guarantees through the International Finance Corporation and supply chain-based financing.
- Member companies began to formalize direct loans for factory remediation.
- The alliance successfully advocated for the elimination of tariffs on key safety equipment, making critical items significantly more affordable.
- Members doubled the duration of compensation provided to displaced workers from two to four months, and disbursed about $5 million in wages to approximately 1,000 workers displaced by factory closures or suspensions
- The alliance developed and implemented Bangladesh’s first harmonized Fire Safety and Structural Integrity Standard and trained more than 1 million workers and managers in basic fire safety.
- The alliance hired seven professional local companies to serve as Qualified Assessment Firms to conduct independent inspections.
The group also began publishing all inspection reports and Corrective Action Plans on its website.
Amazing as this seems now: Before the alliance was formed there was no common fire and building safety standard, inspections were highly inconsistent and uncoordinated, worker safety trainings were not designed to meet the needs of a diverse workforce, and there was little transparency about inspection efforts, the report’s authors note.
Ian Spaulding, a senior adviser to the alliance, added that a key part of maintaining standards in Bangladesh’s clothing factories would be the introduction of democratic institutions, such as trade unions, that support worker rights. There remains some resistance from factory owners: In April, it emerged that fewer than 300 of Bangladesh’s 5,000 clothing factories allowed trade unions.
Basically the alliance had to start at ground-zero to even establish a framework to address the many problems. Twelve months later, significant progress is evident, but cleaning up a shameful and shocking episode is still a work in progress.
Image credit: Bangladeshi garment worker from the Alliance website