The giant North American retail companies including JCPenney, Kohl's, Macy's, Nordstrom, Sears, Target, Canadian Tire, The Children's Place, Costco, Fruit of the Loom, Gap, Hudson's Bay, VF Corporation and Wal-Mart formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance) in 2013 to advance garment worker safety in Bangladesh. It assembled all its programmes in five strategic areas: Standards & Inspections, Remediation, Training, Sustainability and Worker Empowerment. The Alliance declared itself as a "legally binding, five-year commitment" with a vision to "substantially improve worker safety in the garment industry" and it was to "educate workers and management" and "empower workers" in Bangladesh. How did these giant multinationals do in attaining these noble objectives at the end?
The Alliance wrapped up its operations in Bangladesh in 2018 -- its founding and pursuits generated a lot of interest and arguments inside and outside Bangladesh. An objective look at their initiatives and learning about what worked in Bangladesh would benefit all stakeholders within and outside Bangladesh. The evidence generated from such an appraisal will help the western retailers imitate this Bangladesh model and propagate their lessons to other industries and countries from where they also procure.
After thoroughly checking their published annual reports for 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, it appears that Alliance worked with 714 factories (i.e., 654 factories were "active") that employed around 1.3 million garment workers. It was able to form 181 Safety Committees in five years. This means at the end of its tenure it could form Safety Committees in 28 per cent of these factories (181 out of 654). This translates to 18 per cent of the workers (238,809 out of 1.3 million) working in the factories with Safety Committees. No further information was available on these 181 safety committees regarding their formation, composition, worker representation and operations; the meeting agenda, records and minutes were not disclosed either.
It becomes quite apparent that Alliance focused its endeavours mostly on ensuring physical safety of the garment workers in Bangladesh: addressing their immediate and life-threatening dangers related to building, fire and electrical safety. Unfortunately, their efforts in Worker Empowerment were inadequate and barely notable. Several explanations can be proposed for this below par performance of Alliance. The North American companies were not genuinely sincere and involved about worker empowerment in the garment factories. The garment factory owners declined to join forces with Alliance in this Safety Committee initiative thinking these would turn out to be proxies of workers' unions. The garment workers did not see real impact in factories where Safety Committees were indeed formed and operating. The typical workers were not well-informed about the need, scope, importance, objectives, and operations of the Safety Committees. The Bangladesh government might not have cooperated with Alliance in this initiative as it did not want to alienate the garment business owners -- the politically powerful and wealthy elites who control more than 80 per cent of the country's exports. Lastly, the worker advocacy groups, human rights organisations, public health associations, NGOs and other pressure groups in Bangladesh have limited knowledge about the importance of Safety Committees in workplaces.
Progress made in safeguarding factory level health and safety only sustains in the long run when workers take part in safety related decision making, policy preparation, and execution and checking of measures. The Alliance offered widespread training to the workers, managers, and security guards on physical safety provisions, specifically on fire safety. Nonetheless, with this enhanced knowledge and mindfulness on safety, workers will have little to give if there is no outlet or stage for them to convey ideas and views. Workers need to have access to channels to raise their worries about hazards that they confront in the workplace and resolve any differences with management about any persistent issues and on corrective actions. Also, Safety Committees must have worker representatives who are popularly elected by their peers and they should make half of the committee membership. These committees must meet at least once a month, and develop, implement health and safety strategy, programmes and practice at the factories, and build safety awareness among all workers.
Continuing efforts and impetus from the Westerns retailers can help grow worker empowerment schemes in a supply chain country like Bangladesh. Conscientious mentoring and examining of Safety Committees in several pilot factories, making them effective, and emphasising noticeable changes as advocated by these committees may create interest among employers and workers on this committee concept across and beyond the garment sector. Also, creating factory level injury and hazard surveillance mechanisms is key as without fitting and ample data, these committees will remain ineffectual. Once tutored and partaken in such committees, member workers will take away their learning and understanding to other factories when they move on and this will progressively turn these committees into an industry wide acknowledged operating process.
The sequence of garment factory disasters in Bangladesh created a regrettable but immense push to improve working conditions of the workers. Factory owners and the government were under strong scrutiny to take actions. Factory owners would comply with almost any recommendations coming from their powerful and large buyers given the vulnerability that time. The Western companies could take advantage of this motivation particularly when they were together under one aegis for five years. Yet, the attainments they made in the worker empowerment realm are insignificant; it appears that there was an unenthusiastic attention among the North American companies to act in establishing and functioning Safety Committees.
Formation of the Alliance offered a fundamental and extraordinary opening to embark on and employ workplace-based programmes of sizable nature and extent to lessen the anguish of workers and decrease regrettable loss of lives of workers in Bangladesh. These large North American companies came together under one manifesto and pulled together their resources, expertise, goodwill, political influence and buying power. This was the first time the North American giant retailers seemed to have shown a shared interest in improving the working conditions and about the health and safety of millions of garment workers who are knitting and sewing clothes for the Western consumers to make their living. Bangladesh became a global test case to see what the western companies can or are ready to do to preserve workers' health and safety in their global supply chain.
The plain statistics that 72 per cent of the garment factories do not have any Safety Committees after five years of the Alliance's existence in Bangladesh reveals it all.
Hasnat M Alamgir is Professor, Department of Pharmacy, East West University, Dhaka.