The garment industry is the largest export sector in Bangladesh, and is the second largest contributor to the country’s foreign currency reserves after remittances from overseas workers. This sector has been instrumental in driving the country’s economic growth, with an approximate 3.6 million out of 156 million Bangladeshis working in the country’s approximately 5,000 garment factories.
But one study released earlier this decade suggests that, despite the garment sector providing 45 percent of the country’s industrial employment, it only contributes 5 percent to Bangladesh’s total national income. Low wages in the industry also correlated with notoriously unsafe conditions, leading to tragedies like the Rana Plaza disaster and a global shaming of many of the world’s largest fashion brands as, at first, denial and excuses superseded accountability.
Those 1,130 people who lost their lives at Rana Plaza -- and the shattered lives of untold family members and friends -- cannot be reversed, but to the garment industry’s credit, workers’ safety and job rights have seen improvement in Bangladesh. But in order to guarantee that transparency and compliance within this sector continues to improve, additional data that stakeholders can easily access is necessary to ensure another preventable disaster does not occur again. One project underway at a leading university in Bangladesh shows promise in helping those vested in the country’s garment sector to work together in order to bolster the safety of employees.
To that end, TriplePundit spoke with Mohammad Rezaur Razzak, associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, by telephone from his office at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Professor Razzak's team has developed a mapping tool that will include key information about the nation’s garment factories; that information in turn will ensure that the garment industry can grow responsibly and continue to contribute to Bangladesh’s growing economy.
The Participatory Factory Mapping Research (PFMR) tool became possible with the collection of data from over 450 factories in the Mirpur and Kaliakair districts of the greater Dhaka area.
One of the project’s first challenges was the identification of factories. Data about Bangladeshi factories was previously dispersed between a half-dozen databases, but all were hampered by inconsistent or duplicate data. As is the case with the garment industries in other countries, this sector in Bangladesh is one that includes massive manufacturing plants and mills as well as small shops that function as subcontractors for larger factories. Razzak, along with his team of professionally trained enumerators and graduate students, spent over a month last summer pinpointing these factories. The team then developed a set of data and questions that included the types of production, number of workers, export destinations and affiliated brands.
This project’s mission is an important one for BRAC, which has long been involved with Bangladesh’s garment industry. And after the Rana Plaza collapse, the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship Development, of which Razzak serves as director, saw an opportunity to use its expertise to bring tangible changes to the industry. “Our center was up to encourage entrepreneurship amongst students, but then the time came to make a contribution to society in terms of one of our country’s most important businesses,” Razzak told 3p.
Key to this project’s success was gaining the cooperation of the large industry groups, including the most influential one, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). This project already had the buy-in of human rights organizations, labor unions, the C&A Foundation and representatives of some foreign embassies. But one issue, the degree of transparency and sort of information that this survey would reveal, was one that made several BGMEA members skittish.
Nevertheless, the reputation of BRAC, along with the understanding that the long-term survival of Bangladesh’s garment industry was at stake, convinced all stakeholders that access to data is crucial and could only prove to be a net-positive for everyone in the sector.
As of now, PFMR’s mapping tool provides a high-level overview of the factories included in this survey. Users can hover over a factory’s location and see the number of employees, its gender ratio, the types of products manufactured, as well as the brands and markets for whom these garments are made and then exported.
Queries can also be entered to ascertain which factories make what sort of products for which brands. While data on safety inspections and violations are not yet part of this database, users can assess whether factories are registered with organizations including the BGMEA, along with the agencies that monitor Bangladesh’s labor inspections and fire safety. At a most basic level, users can gauge which factories have made moves toward registering with garment industry associations and local authorities — versus others that are more opaque about the data they share.
“As far as transparency goes, the realization within the industry was that you cannot sweep these issues under the rug,” Razzak told us. “Workers are now more conscious of their rights and want to know which factories have better conditions and wages, as they will move to those factories. The fact is that market forces and trends in this industry will provide a huge advantage to factories that agree to be transparent over those that are not compliant.”
The PFMR mapping tool is not yet in the public domain. As Razzak explained, collecting the data was the easy part: The larger challenge as gaining agreement from the garment industry’s various stakeholders on what kind of data will be included in this database, how that information will be presented, and the procedures covering how to update the information as it changes.
The C&A Foundation is funding this project, but if it scales to include the vast majority of Bangladesh’s factories, then discussions will need to be held with fashion brands and garment buyers on contributing to its cost.
As of now, this project covers less than 10 percent of Bangladesh’s garment factories, and the database would be far more robust if it included information on labor agreements and workplace violations. But in the murky world of garment manufacturing, PFMR’s researchers found that 80 percent of these factories are subcontractors, a huge step in allowing companies to improve the traceability of their garments within their supply chains. “We don’t have a limit as to how far we want to go,” Razzak said, “but we would like to cover 99 percent of exporting factories.”
Even if the long-term results cover 75 percent of Bangladesh’s factories, this project would be a huge step forward for the country’s garment sector, as more information would help empower workers while allowing companies to truly show their commitment to responsible sourcing.
Image credit: Flickr/Tareq Salahuddin
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.