The ready-made garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh is the home of the second-largest apparel seller in the world. RMG is the primary export-oriented industrial sector of Bangladesh and it looks forward to becoming the prime industry in the years to come, as the export statistics suggest. This year amid the Corona outbreak, amongst the total export from the country, more than 80 per cent came from RMG exports. The RMG industry in Bangladesh experienced the most overwhelming incident in its history on April 24, 2013. The collapse of the Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory building in Savar, Dhaka, that housed five garment factories, killed at least 1,132 people, and injured more than 2,500. This unfortunate event cast a spotlight on the poor working conditions in RMG supply firms where millions of workers make garments for consumers worldwide. The foremost apparel industry of the country has been experiencing the second most overwhelming incident in its history after Rana Plaza Tragedy.
Thus it implies that the sustainable future of RMG sector of Bangladesh will depend on ensuring continuous improvements in labour rights, workplace health, safety and reasonable business. In the RMG sector, transparency means permitting consumers to know who makes their apparel from who farmed the cotton, stitched them, and dyed the fabric and other relevant information on products. The demand for transparency in the RMG supply chain is rising as consumers are becoming more socially and environmentally aware every day during the Covid pandemic.
To contribute to improving efficiency, transparency and accountability of RMG in Bangladesh, Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB) has been undertaking a 4-year research initiative by Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED) of BRAC University [CED-BRACU] and BRAC. The implementing organisation is aiming to map the RMG industry across all garment-producing districts in the country. MiB's design and implementation are in response to a lack of essential industry data, such as: how many export-oriented factories exist in the country, gender ratio of workers employed there, what kind of products are produced and which brands work with them, etc., among other relevant information.
The digital mapping project was initiated in 2017 led by BRAC University with lead funding from Laudes Foundation (formerly known as C&A Foundation) and the Kingdom of the Netherlands (through the Royal Netherlands embassy) and coordination support from BRAC USA and BRAC. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) are the strategic partners of the project. The project is also supported by the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) under the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE).
The project incorporating factories in the digital map from across the country is expected to be completed in 2021. In line with the nation's "Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021", with the MiB tool, the RMG industry is expected to come one-step closer to aligning itself to the mandated digitization of every sector in the pandemic. MiB (formerly known as "DRFM-B" - Digital RMG Factory Mapping in Bangladesh) is a scale-up of a pilot project titled "Participatory Factory Mapping Research" (PFMR) focused on two (2) sub-districts in Bangladesh conducted by CED-BRACU. The objective of Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB) is to provide accurate, credible, and updated RMG factory information to all industry stakeholders in a manner that enables greater efficiency, productivity, accountability and transparency. Designed and built-in Bangladesh, this powerful tool serves as a home-grown solution that further strengthens the country's significant and thriving RMG industry.
The project covered factory data/information featuring on the digital map including: Factory Name/ Postal Address/ GPS Location, Membership/ Registration Status, Type of Factory (woven/ knit/ sweater/ composite), Type of Product(s), Production Processes, Type of Factory Building Structure (shared/ standalone), Number of Workers (with male-female ratio), Exporting Zones/ Countries, Major Brands/ Buyers. Workers Participatory Committee (WPC), Safety Committee, Affiliation/ Status Certifications [Accord, Alliance, ISO, OEKO-TEX, LEED, WRAP, SEDEX], distance of the nearest hospitals, and fire service stations are also covered in the map.
The project has provided credible, industry-wide data on the number of factories, their locations, number of workers, and much more. The project, first of its kind, aims to collect a detailed industry-wide primary database of export-oriented RMG factories and disclose information to the public in the form of an interactive online digital map at https://mappedinbangladesh.org/ which is considered similar to Google Maps. Driven by a collective action approach, Mapped in Bangladesh has been seeking input from all stakeholders through public crowd sourcing to keep the data accurate and up-to-date. This new platform will be publicly accessible to catalyze transparency and bring about meaningful industry improvements in Bangladesh, thus strengthening the sector as a whole.
RMG stakeholders like brands, buyers, factory owners, a workers' advocacy group, and government actors are now highlighting the MiB project in various forums around the globe. A lot of realisations came in response to the Rana plaza tragedy that was voiced by a stakeholder of the industry: "If we had such a map during tragedy, we could have reacted more quickly, and we would have known how many factories and workers were in the building, and which brands were being produced there."
The social and economic impacts of the corona pandemic are difficult to predict now. Apart from the concerns about people's health, fears of a significant depression are also surfacing within the air. Digital technologies have a key role to play during this phase of reorientation. How does the worldwide spread of the coronavirus affect digitalization? Will the crisis bring new and unexpected potential for garments industry? During this outbreak, digital initiative like MiB can contribute to the RMG sector to provide various types of data effectively. Likewise, the MiB has developed another map to show the operational status of the RMG factories during the corona outbreak at https://covid-19.mappedinbangladesh.org/ which in reality can show the data accurate and up-to-date bringing the industry's meaningful improvements in Bangladesh, thus ensuring the good governance of the Apparel sector as a whole.
The writer Syed Rabius Shams is a freelance journalist and Md. Mofazzol Karim is Assistant Programme Manager of Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED), BRAC University.