The Bangladeshi Garment Industry has shown remarkable resilience over the years with strong growth in times of global financial hard times. Some of the industry’s success is credited to its focus on low end garment whose demand remains strong in most economic conditions as it is cheap. However, for Bangladesh to overcome China and beat competition from emerging South East Asian economies, it must aim for the high end clothing market with greater worker efficiency, better technology, and sustainable practices of our garment factories with increasing flexibility towards worker organization and empowerment.
With over 5% share of the Global Market for Garment Products, second only to China’s about 31% share of the same , Bangladesh is trying hard to take as much of the market as possible from China’s decreasing share.
Regardless of the growth and increased productivity, the standard of life and its security has not improved at equal rate for the garment workers, resulting in numerous death and injuries caused in factories all across the country.
A Decade of Export Growth in Comparison to Labour Force Growth. Source: Complied by RISE from, EPB, BGMEA, ILO and the Daily Star Bangladesh.
The fires and structural problems have caused at least 1710 deaths since 1990 till 2013 if tallied as we did below. However it must be noted that there are other claims that between 1468  and 1800  workers have lost their lives in dozens of garment factory disasters since as recent as 2005 beginning with the Spectrum Factory collapse.
Dead and Wounded in Garment Factories Between 1990 – 2013. Source: Compiled by RISE.
According to a survey conducted by the BGMEA under its fire safety crash programs in 2011 , a total of 168 fire incidents happened in RMG units from 1990 to October 2009. The toll of deceased recorded to be 222 in 19 factories. The report said ‘One garment factory blazed in 1990, three in 1995, one in 1996, six in 1997, four in 1998, 16 in 1999, 19 in 2000, 23 in 2001, 09 in 2002, 15 in 2003, 16 in 2004, nine in 2005, 15 in 2006, fourteen in 2007 six in 2008, ten in 2009 and four in 2010’. The survey recorded 47 fire incidents from 2006 to January 2010. Of the total, 10 took place due to electric short circuits and the rest are termed as ‘unknown reasons’.
On the backdrop of such calamities, Bangladesh came up with an amendment of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amendment 2013), and a fresh new (and controversial) minimum wage 2013 as well as an EPZ minimum wage 2013. Heavily criticized and contested, these new minimum wages came about after a lot of struggle and bloodshed, with workers asking for an 8000BDT minimum wage which would be according to their minimum subsistence demands in the current prices of commodities in the country. Although following the declaration of minimum wages, a poor display of implementation has been observed since then specially across factories outside the export processing zones, there still has been yet another attempt to advance the cause of workers in the form of the much awaited wage guideline 2014 of the Sweater factories of Bangladesh.
Apart from these attempts for reform, there have been efforts from global stake holders, Brands and the Bangladesh Government to improve work place safety as a measure to improve the image of the supply chain in an effort to boost consumer confidence and bring about better chances of a sustainable future for this sector. The effects thereof on the workers have been mixed, and the load levied on the factory owners have been one of argument and counter argument by interest groups across the table. Amidst all this, however, the Garment Industry in Bangladesh have still been able to witness solid growth in its traditional markets and the opening of new markets with promising potential such as China, India, Russia and Japan.
Growth in Emerging Markets (EPB, 2013/14)
Growth in Knitwear Export in Traditional Markets (EPB, 2013/14)
Growth in Woven Export in Traditional Markets (EPB, 2013/14)
Garment exports grew by 14% on 2014 (EPB, 2014) in 2013/14 fiscal year from 2012/13. But the total exports were 1 percent below the target of US$30.5 billion. The tables above display robust growth in traditional markets for Bangladeshi garment, where markets performing better than the average growth of 14% are highlighted in green, while markets which grew less than the average growth (or contracted) in 2013/14 fiscal year have been highlighted in pink. A positive early sign of Bangladesh’s successful efforts towards gaining greater share of market from China is its growth in the Chinese market being strongest in the Emerging markets category of the tables above.
Security At Work
As growth must be driven by productivity, sustained by cheap labor, supported by smooth flow of raw materials while strengthened by greater influence over the policy making bodies of the State, it became obvious that the our dominant industry would get together to control all the determinants to keep their business expanding.
Buyers have always made it clear that they came to Bangladesh for its cheap and efficient labour, and would stay in Bangladesh for that only. The ships would most certainly remove their anchors from Bangladeshi shores once they realize that the profit margins are not the same anymore. Our factory owners clearly got the message, and the workers had to pay the price with their lives.
With growing demand and extra work load, workers ended up working long hours toiling in over crowded factory floors, boiling hot, smelly and often without clean water or sufficient air, having to cope with every coercing mechanism developed by human greed since centuries. In crumbling buildings, the cheapest of their kinds, factory owners even went as far as starting factories in buildings built for residential purposes. The Brands, with little concern of workers, emerged with fantastic ideas of employing audit systems which would conveniently issue a piece of paper which they could market as certifying their ethical and responsible purchasing practices, which clearly kept proving to be insufficient and useless with successive factory disasters.
Still, with the pain and suffering which no worker anywhere in the world can deserve, workers in Bangladesh kept on with the struggles they faced for the opportunity to feed their family. The greatest security of all, they valued the security of seeing another day in life where they would be able to sleep under a shed and eat a bowl of rice which would satisfy their hunger.
Hunger, shelter and family have always been the greatest security for man since the stone age, and continues to be so in impoverished placed like Bangladesh, among its most impoverished industrial working class citizens. Structural security, however important and vital, have always come much later. This is the first and foremost reason why workers of Rana Plaza, fully aware of the fatal cracks that had developed in their factory and for which they wanted to refrain from working in that building, found themselves compelled to go in and continue working. They were threatened that their wages would not be paid, the bonuses would be denied, and they would have to loose their jobs and benefits. The little money that they get were their security against hunger, homelessness, even dying loved ones whom they might not be able to help. They went in, only to die of causes which for them were secondary, a fact still testified by many Rana Plaza workers we have talked with at RISE.
However, with the fire at Tazreen Fashion and the subsequent catastrophic collapse of Rana Plaza, the Accord came about followed by the Alliance which complemented the NTAP.
With approximately 1700 factories between them, the Accord and the Alliance have completed their first phase of inspections .
Although the Accord was skeptical at the beginning  over the nature and procedure of the Alliance and its inspections, it is now open to integrate with the Alliance’s inspections, which also helps to complete its own inspections on schedule. The Alliance has completed 100% of their inspections in 587 factories while the Accord has completed inspections in 1106 of their 1500 factories where they have expressed their move to associate with the 300 common factories between them and the Alliance which have already been inspected by the Alliance; however, a 100 factories of Accord signatories are yet to be inspected.
The Accord has been a promising venture where Trade Unionists were made an integral part of the Steering Committee which would be overseen by INGOs, along with Brand signatories. It positions itself as a binding agreement with buyers. However, when it comes to factory closures and paying off compensation to workers who ultimately loose their jobs and pay, the Accord has been less than clear on their scheme to solve this problem . Their comment on this revolves around the brand which is supposed to communicate with the factory owner to pay affected workers on factory closure, which is far from what is happening on ground with most of the factories closed by the accord. Thus, it will not be too much of an exaggeration to claim that the accord swiftly fails to address one of the major concerns of the workers – and that is their wage – more than any right or any demand.
The Alliance, which have been a more brand driven initiative, have come up with a major difference in this matter. It ensures workers affected due to factory closures getting paid according to the Bangladeshi legal provisions , with a 10% fixed for this purpose from its Worker Safery Fund of US$ 1m. Addressing this major concern of wage was followed with an important amendment clearing the “right of the worker to refuse unsafe work”, and an effort to integrate Trade Union perspective to its operations.
Both the Accord and the Alliance now have the major challenge of working to facilitate the financing of factory remediation plans which are the main concern of the whole idea. In this regard VF Corp, a signatory of the Alliance, came forward to facilitate finances for factory remediation. Till now, signatory brands are yet to show clear financial commitments to the remedial plans of the factories , something that should be naturally expected more from the Accord due to the binding nature of its agreement.
With more than 5000 Garment Factories  where a major portion are factories making for Accord and Alliance signatory brands by means of subcontracting are out of the inspections of these initiatives, and remain at risk of disasters unless corrective measures are not taken by these initiatives or the government itself.
Right to Salary, Benefit, Association, Strike and Leisure
The right to salary is something that has always faced challenge in Bangladesh. The usual scenes of unrest, burning cars and vandalized factories are far too common on the streets of Ashulia, Savar, Narayanganj and Mirpur. The recent case of 5 Tuba Group factories namely Tuba Fashion Limited, Tuba Textile Mills Limited, Mita Designs Limited, Taif Designs Limited and Bughsan Garment were closed down under the Bangladesh Labor Act 2006 (amend. 2013), Section 13 (1) citing unlawful strike due to which workers would loose their right to benefits and the owner Mr. Delwar Hossain would get complete authority to close down the factories unilaterally.
The Tuba Group workers of these 5 factories worked tirelessly just before the FIFA World Cup 2014, shipping jersey consignments worth millions of dollars, waiting for their rightful salaries, overtime wages and festival bonuses before the one festival they wait for the entire year – the Eid festival. However, much to their dismay, they were denied of their 3 month wages, let alone bonuses, for which they had to protest and go for hunger strikes to the point of death.
This only brought back the imprisoned Delwar Hossain, prisoned for criminal negligence due to the infamous Tazreen Fashions Inferno which took the life of 124 workers. The scenario as presented by the BGMEA was that only Mr. Delwar Hossain could help the workers get their wages, and thus a bail was extremely necessary in the dire circumstances.
As soon as Mr. Delwar Hossain appeared, the workers received their wages gradually, but their bonuses remained denied and has never been given since. The factories declared closed on the basis of a misused law have been closed without paying the workers their arrears/benefits. A gross violation of human rights, and a far too common sight during festival holidays when the rest of the country looks forward to beautiful moments with their family and friends.
Leisure, an important human right associated with entertainment, is a distant dream for garment workers in Bangladesh. Just as it was for the Tuba Group workers who worked overtime, tirelessly through day and night, hoping to retain their jobs and earn some precious overtime money to be able to buy something extra on that auspicious festival night for their children; a dream which shattered into pieces when their murderous owner came back to burn their dreams like he burned those previously in Tazreen Fashions.
Pre Festival weeks are a time of long working hours going well into late night and pre dawn mornings. Such overtime demands are forced labor which cannot be denied, and are met with harsh treatments if avoided. Due to absence of trade unions in factories, there is no association of workers to carry forward their concerns, a situation carefully maintained by factory owners by employing spies among workers who would inform any attempt to unionize so that thei worker trying to unionize can be spotted and fired on dubious charges.
The right to form Trade Unions is still a dream for the EPZ workers in Bangladesh as well. Although an important and decisive factor for the US GSP facility, the Commerce Minister still made it clear that no further amendments in the EPZ labour Act 2014 can be made to accommodate with demands for trade unions in the EPZ area , fearing the investors moving out of the EPZ areas where investments crucial to the economy is made.
With such being the condition of the right to wage, benefit, association, strike and leisure, it is not hard to see that we have miles to go and the ground we have covered are only circles of useless wits.
Incomplete Justice Is No Justice
With the Tazreen Fashion fire victims still to be fully compensated from the Government funds as well as all the brands which were manufacturing there, justice still remains at bay. Although commendable efforts are followed on by C&A, Li & Fung, more brands were manufacturing in that unfortunate factory and they have still managed to remain unmoved by the sheer human loss. With Mr Delwar Hossain on bail and enjoying the winds of freedom – Justice is further at bay for Tazreen victims than it ever was before.
Rana Plaza workers still suffer through loss of limbs, physical ability to work or in many cases to lead a normal life. Those alive and physically less injured still carry deep psychological wounds that may never be healed. Rana Plaza victims are still far from compensated completely. The arrangement  is gathering the funds slowly, but for some victims the wait might never be completed before their lifespan is. With Mr. Soheil Rana yet to face a chargesheet, justice is still a far cry for this disaster which surely will go down in history as the most grizzliest factory disasters of modern times.
For factory owners the cold shoulder of brands are an everyday reality which they deal with. It is always about the price, and the factory owners is expected to reach the standards while maintaining his factory in rock bottom prices. Brands often hold press conferences expressing their interest in “other destinations” worrying over increasing prices in Bangladesh, however readily ask for rebates  when they feel the need for themselves – even in times when the industry is going through challenges where it must fix itself to meet the desired standards of its clients.
Top Down For Bangladesh
Brands are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to the Bangladeshi Garment Industry. Neither the workers, their unions, nor the factories and our Government has too much space or power to make the changes that brands can enforce with their bargaining power.
Bangladesh at the moment markets its cheap labour, which gives a clear picture of the situation of the trade and its balance of power.
Weak trade union federations are an unfortunate feature of labour representation in Bangladesh where the strongest of these Federations are found most often to be completely undemocratic; most lead by men with political backgrounds and having never been a worker himself. With massive conflict of interest with the elite (which usually own the factories in Bangladesh), and a small percentage of workers unionized in unions which are mostly ineffective due to factory policies and its internal politics or even lack of training, the worker representation is not in a state to drive a change in Bangladesh anytime soon, although, it supported, it does have the capacity to be a great support for any change that is to be brought to the sector.
The Accord, Alliance, NTPA, Government factory inspections have been influenced by the Top Down structure, coming into any reasonable effect since Tazreen and Rana Plaza disasters when buyers expressed their commitment for a better working condition for their own image’s sake.
The sector can improve with the brand leading the effort, with western buying nations supporting such effort. Brands must understand that changing destinations will not solve the problem, and if it needs to be solved, Bangladesh is the right place to solve the issues surrounding sustainability. An integrated effort where factory owners encouraging proper worker representation, lead by the brand which is driven by consumer demand, can only bring limitless benefits to all the parties in the supply chain. It is certainly not impossible, if of course the incentive is right. Now perhaps the only question that remains is at what cost will the change in the brand’s attitude towards owning its responsibilities offshore be?
EPB – Export Promotion Bureau
EPZ – Export Processing Zones
NTAP – National tripartite Action Plan