The new platform called RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) is no doubt a turning point in so far as it promises to bring the entire chain of garment manufacturing in the country under a comprehensive overseeing mechanism. The council will be governed by a board of directors consisting of an equal number of representatives from the industry, brands and trade unions. It will operate within the regulatory framework of the laws of the country, closely cooperating with and supporting the regulatory functions of the government. It will also retain all health and safety inspections, remediation, safety training and complaint-handling functions so long carried out by the overseas garment retailers' representative - Accord. It may be noted that the Accord, a platform of global apparel brands, retailers and rights groups mostly based in Europe, was formed immediately after the Rana Plaza building collapse to improve workplace safety in the country's apparel industry.
Details of the role the RSC were to play make one convinced about the urgent need of such a council. Observers aware of the country's garment export scene will surely consider it a timely move in that the RSC is likely to not only streamline the country's most rewarding export sector but also address in a proactive manner some critically business-impeding difficulties facing the sector.
The RSC, in a nutshell, is a tripartite platform of apparel makers, buyers and labour rights groups to ensure workplace safety and compliance of standards in the garment sector. It may be recalled that following the Tazreen Fashion fire in 2012 and Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, the country's garment industry was in a tight spot as allegations about improper, risky workplaces were so widespread that industry leaders and the government agreed to launch a factory remediation scheme under supervision of two teams representing the two clusters of major international buyers - the European and North American (mainly US) buyers. These teams - the Accord represented mostly European brands and retailers, and the Alliance represented the North American buyers and brands. Both teams were engaged for five years.
It was a long and arduous task given the hugely varying nature of remediation needs involving among others inspection of structural designs and fire safety provisions in thousands of factories. There were occasional hiccups as inspection results demanded massive overhauling of a large number of factories. However, over the years most of the flawed factories have been set right.
The team representing the North American buyers and brands - the Alliance, has already left the country on completion of its job in 2018. The Accord, too, has done a commendable job, although a good number of factories from which neither the European buyers nor the North Americans source their imports are left out and currently these are being looked into by local inspection teams formed by the government.
The Accord is still in the country. Its tenure was to end in May, 2018. The government extended its stay as the Accord wanted more time to complete its job. In May last year, the Supreme Court allowed the Accord to continue its activities for 281 days after it and the BGMEA signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in this regard. As per the MoU, the proposed RMG Sustainability Council would be set up during this period and inherit both the Accord's staff and infrastructure after expiry of its tenure.
The RSC thus will act as a successor of Accord in that it will conduct inspection, monitoring and certification for exporting factories. In so doing, the RSC will also take over all activities and staff of Accord.
The decision regarding the RSC has been agreed upon unanimously in meetings. All parties reportedly discussed a wide range of issues to ensure a smooth transition of the Accord and its functions related to inspections, remediation, training and safety complaints mechanism to the RSC by end of May 2020.
Expressing satisfaction over the matter, Edward David Southall, Head of global sourcing of LC Waikiki, and representative of European brands said, "RSC is an unprecedented national initiative, uniting industry, brands and trade unions to ensure a sustainable solution, based on a unified compliance standard, to carry forward the significant accomplishments made on workplace safety in Bangladesh." The parties agreed on the importance of jointly developing the Memorandum & Articles of RSC and a 'Transition Agreement', drafts of which will be prepared following an agreed timetable," said a joint statement. The RSC will also work for building industrial relations, skills development and maintaining environmental standards. It has been learnt that the draft Articles of Association of the RSC and its functions would be prepared by next month.
It now appears that RSC is going to be a foremost platform for ensuring the mandated works of workplace safety and compliance related matters. And a good deal of its success will rest with holding regular dialogues with factory unions. No doubt, this two-fold activity, if conducted in a fruitful manner, will place the RMG industry on a foundation stronger than ever before. This is where sustainability comes in, and the industry leaders surely will spare no effort to ensure that the RSC gets the right space in delivering a proper business model.
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