Apparel industry -- workplace safety not enough  

Wasi Ahmed   | Published: May 29, 2018 22:06:51 | Updated: May 30, 2018 21:28:17


Any Bangladeshi or someone who wishes Bangladesh well will find it heartening to learn that the country's apparel sector has lately achieved something really commendable. The country has moved well ahead of some of its formidable competitors in its attainments on workplace safety. This has been revealed by AsiaInspection in its first quarterly report of 2018 released recently. The Hong Kong-based inspection body, which is also a leading global quality control and compliance service provider that partners with brands, retailers and importers around the world, has placed Bangladesh ahead of India and China in its assessment of workplace conditions in the apparel sector. Besides workplace safety, Bangladesh has advanced by 15 per cent over a period of one year in ethical scores.

Thanks to the remediation process that took more than four years following the Rana Plaza disaster to bring about this remarkable transformation in workplace conditions of the apparel factories. Although there has been controversy over the remediation process that involved substantial investments on the part of the factory owners, the fact remains that European and North American buyers' platform Accord and Alliance, which looked after the entire process for so long, has done a good job in collaboration with the factory owners and the government. The improvements noted by AsiaInspection have been traced to this good job.

Around 90 per cent of the inspection and remediation of about 2,300 active garment factories affiliated with Accord and Alliance have so far been completed. Besides, 1,500 small and medium-sized factories are being inspected and monitored by the government. These factories are mostly engaged in subcontracting for exporting units, and constitute a crucial component of the country's apparel manufacturing and exporting process.

While the prevailing state of the subcontracting units are more or less well known, especially their poor working conditions and the looming safety threats, a recent study done by the Stern Centre for Business and Human Rights of New York University has highlighted some critical aspects focusing also on the costs required for remediation. The report said some 7,000 factories -- including garment, textile, dying and washing units -- are operating across the country, and around 3,000 of them are subcontracting units. The number of sub-contracting units appears to be inflated and this might have been due to counting of many small facilities not related to export and engaged in meeting only domestic demand. Whatever the exact number, it is clear that those still awaiting remediation are well over a thousand, and the workers employed there would not be less than two hundred thousand at the very least. So, in all fairness, unless the entire sector is covered by workplace improvement plan, one must not feel complacent.

The AsiaInspection report has, no doubt, brought home the fact that the four-year-long effort has paid off, and advances along the path will make things far better in future. This is critically important since major international brands/retailers who procure from Bangladesh are increasingly on the look-out for various compliance norms-fulfilling which is conditional to placing export orders. 

In this situation, there is virtually no chance for exporting countries to access major markets with poor compliance track records. Curiously, however, this rigid position emerged in rather a short time. Only a few years back, apparel retailers mainly focused on the best FOB (freight on board) price, the best quality and the shortest lead time for the imported products in order to achieve commercial success. As a result, they sourced globally to optimise their costs. However, there has been a growing awareness of different sourcing criteria in the textiles and apparel industry. For instance, human rights issues and environmental requirements emerged as crucial parameters in the selection of business partners.

Addressing consumer concerns has recently become a very important issue for apparel companies. They are particularly concerned about products sourced from the Third World, where the manufacturing process allegedly violates human rights quite often. As a result, increasing number of people prefer to buy products and services from companies that are socially responsible and uphold sound ethical standards. This has led to an increase in collective consumer pressure on producers of goods and services to manufacture in an environment that does not violate human rights or use child labour. The increasing awareness of these issues has forced apparel companies, especially those with brands, to develop specific guidelines or a code of conduct to ensure that their business partners comply with the requirements.

 However, despite the improvements in Bangladesh's apparel manufacturing as well as higher score in ethical parameters, one has reasons to ask how long it will take for the industry to respond to workers' demands on a host of issues that are central to defining ethical norms. While the rights issue is still a contentious one despite enactment of labour law, the demand for revision of wage structure and setting a new minimum wage for the sector is yet to be resolved. Workplace safety and improvement in workplace environment will make more sense once the core ethical issues are addressed once and for all.

wasiahmed.bd@gmail,com

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