Dhaka—In the early morning, crowds of women in bright salwar kameez move like a colorful wave through the streets of Dhaka. They are garment workers on their way to the morning shift at thousands of factories. They are also an important force driving Bangladesh’s economic engine. But this critical industry that employs more than 4 million people—80 percent of them women—is struggling to make sweeping changes.
Two years ago, on April 24, 2013, the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza in Dhaka killed 1,100 workers in the world’s worst garment-factory disaster. Low-paid garment workers were crushed and maimed beneath concrete and steel in a catastrophe that shocked and outraged the world. The tragedy sparked a global demand for international clothing companies, factory owners, and Bangladesh’s government to improve poor safety standards in the world’s second-largest exporter of garments.
Now the difficult phase of fixing the problems is under way. More than 2,700 garment factories in Bangladesh have been inspected so far (as of this March 22, 32 of them had been closed because of imminent risk). Eventually some 3,500 export factories must meet international standards; otherwise, they cannot work with big international buyers and, in theory, should be barred from exporting.
Progress on upgrading factories varies widely. Ones with resources are investing heavily in strengthening concrete columns, installing imported fire-safety equipment such as fire doors and hydrant systems, upgrading electrical wiring, and training workers. At the other extreme are factories that are evading inspectors and ignoring calls to upgrade. Some owners are struggling to pay for the improvements and say they need low-interest loans.
Garment workers at Alif Embroidery Village in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka. Alif is heavily investing in upgrading its facilities.
Two international groups, called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, are overseeing remediation of more than 2,000 factories after finishing inspections in recent months. Together, the groups represent more than 200 of the largest US and European clothing buyers, including H&M, Walmart, Zara, and the Gap.
About 1,400 factories not covered by the Accord and Alliance fall under a third initiative, the National Tripartite Plan for Fire and Structural Integrity, backed by the Bangladeshi government, the International Labor Organization (ILO), and other groups. The National Tripartite Plan is about halfway through its inspections; some of its remaining factories are resisting or evading inspections.
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Lists of problems at factories are posted on public websites. Owners have from about six weeks to nine months to upgrade their facilities, depending on the issues. Pressure is high, because both the Alliance and Accord are five-year agreements that end in 2018 (the Accord was signed two years ago last week).
The big question is what will happen after the pacts end, when inspections and enforcement will rely on the National Tripartite Plan and the Bangladeshi government, though some foreign buyers will also continue their private factory inspections.
Managers at Alif Embroidery Village walk through a new fire door that was imported and meets international standards.
The next three years will be critical for Bangladesh’s garment industry—and the country’s future. The industry helped drive annual economic growth to 6 percent in recent years and is credited with reducing poverty in this country of more than 160 million people.
The ILO and the German aid agency GiZ are training inspectors and helping the Bangladeshi government create a functioning regulatory system. The government has recruited 263 new labor inspectors, up from 68 before the collapse of Rana Plaza, and more than quadrupled the budget for factory oversight. But even with initial expenses incurred by greater safety measures and an increase in the monthly minimum wage—from 3,000 taka ($38) to 5,300 taka ($68) at the end of 2013—the garment industry continues to expand. Exports grew 4 percent from 2013 to 2014, to $24.5 billion, according to Bangladesh’s Export Promotion Bureau. Factories are moving from congested central Dhaka to the city’s outskirts, where there’s more room for growth.
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Who will ensure that garment factories are safe after international pacts expire and media scrutiny and consumer outrage fades? To make safety truly sustainable, the workers themselves must have a voice. “They are the most important conduit of positive change because they are at the factories,” said Tuomo Poutiainen, program officer at the ILO in Dhaka.
The legally binding Accord, whose members include more than 190 predominantly European clothing brands as well as trade unions, is also vocal about the role of workers. The Alliance, which represents 26 of the biggest North American clothing buyers, notably does not include unions.
The groundwork for empowering workers is being laid in various ways. Newly mandated safety and health committees will probably be set up at garment factories later this year. Fledgling labor unions are growing. NGOs have formed workers’ networks and offer legal aid. Worker hotlines were recently launched by the Bangladeshi government and the Alliance to field anonymous complaints from workers. These initiatives are not without controversy, since involving workers is a new concept in the country’s garment industry.
Details about election and governance of the safety committees are still being hotly debated but are expected to be finalized this summer. These committees are standard practice in Southeast Asian garment factories. But in Bangladesh, both companies and workers’ groups are anxiously awaiting the rules, which will apply to all industries, not just the garment sector.
“There is zero experience in this kind of joint work in safety and health,” said Poutiainen of the ILO. “From the government’s perspective, they think ‘We don’t know what will happen because we’ve never done this before.’”
Labor unions are generally weak in Bangladesh, and their growth makes many uneasy. “The government is reluctant to let the garment industry organize,” said Roy Ramesh, secretary general of the union IndustriALL Bangladesh Council. Less than 5 percent of the garment industry is represented by unions. Some factories have also fired or threatened workers who try to join unions. In one high-profile case, labor activist Aminul Islam of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity was abducted and murdered in 2012.
Families of victims of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse hold photos of loved ones at the site of the disaster.
Violent threats and abuse have affected a approximately 15 percent of workers who organize, according to Alonzo Suson, Bangladesh program director of the Solidarity Center, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Even so, Bangladeshi labor unions have grown rapidly. The number of active garment industry unions has increased from seven in 2010 to 200 today, representing some 150,000 workers. However, union registrations are now slowing, with more applications being rejected by factories in a sign that management is resisting their growth, said Suson.
And it’s not as simple as calling for more labor unions. The key is creating effective unions—a complicated task, especially in Bangladesh. One common concern is that burgeoning unions could be co-opted by political interests in a country infamous for cutthroat politics. This year, conflict between Bangladesh’s two main political parties fueled 81 days of blockades and 67 days of volatile national strikes, in which traffic and daily life ground to a halt. More than 100 people have died this year, many of them bystanders killed in roadside bombings.
Many people here argue that trade unions destroyed the jute industry, which Bangladesh once dominated, though it’s hard to find clear evidence of this. Others, such as Lutfor Rahman, vice president of the Bangladesh Trade Union Center, say it was political jockeying after Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan that caused the industry’s demise,
According to one international union activist, stronger unions have hurt the growth of garment industries elsewhere. In the Philippines, this was one factor causing many international clothing companies to leave the country, thus curtailing a once-burgeoning industry.
There is also the challenge of learning how to run effective unions. Experienced leadership in Bangladesh is rare; the average garment industry union leader is 26 and has an eighth-grade education, according to the Solidarity Center, which is training union leaders here along with other organizations. They are being taught how to negotiate, resolve grievances, run meetings, manage funds, and more. Each must learn to lead hundreds of factory workers, many of whom have little education or may be virtually illiterate. “Union maturity has to happen in the next three years,” said Suson of the Solidarity Center. “The learning curve is steep.”
Workers are starting to have the confidence to protest conditions and to refuse working in unsafe buildings. “There’s progress, but still a long way to go,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, assistant executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies. “We are starting from zero. This is a huge initiative.”
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Each week at the office of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) in Gazipur, on the outskirts of Dhaka, hundreds of young union leaders meet with organizers. A BIGUF organizer speaks rapidly into a microphone about the role of unions and the responsibilities of leaders and members in front of about two dozen men and women seated cross-legged on the floor beneath whirring fans.
Today BIGUF is the largest federation in Bangladesh’s garment industry. It has more than 12,000 members in 32 organized factories, compared with 4,800 members before 2012.
Factory safety was not among the main grievances of the union leaders gathered one recent afternoon. Rather, their most common problems are not getting paid on time, no paid vacation or maternity leave, lack of clean drinking water, and dirty toilets.
Talks with management have had positive results, said union leaders such as Asan Ali, a 20-something sewing machine operator at Aliza Fashion, a nearby factory. After discussions with workers, his factory installed ceiling fans and also began giving 20 days of paid leave to employees (they had received no paid leave before).
The industry has come a long way over the past decade. “There have been big, big changes,” said Manjur Morshed, an adviser at GiZ who helped launch a network for garment workers in 2007. One way for workers in Dhaka and the port city of Chittagong to learn about their rights and get legal assistance is at “women’s cafes,” which are not actual cafes but rather informal gatherings where workers can get support. Since their inception, about 200,000 people have attended the cafes (men were allowed to join after the collapse of Rana Plaza). In the early days, hardly anyone participated, because factory management fined or threatened to fire them if they did so, recalled Morshed.
One evening after work in central Dhaka, about 25 garment workers crammed into the small office of a nonprofit called Awaj Foundation, which gets support from GiZ. Each week, 200 to 300 workers attend this one cafe. There, they played a trivia game, chatted, and snacked on tea and fried discs of dough called puri. Dice clattered as the players moved pieces over a board game that tested their knowledge of workers’ rights.
More garment factory workers in Bangladesh are wearing protective face masks as safety awareness increases.
Morshed says one thing that eased management’s opposition to the gatherings was their emphasis not only on workers’ rights but also responsibilities. For example, it is common for workers not to inform managers about absences, whether for sick leave or holidays.
Lucky Beghum, a 27-year-old single mother, worked until recently at a small subcontracting factory in Dhaka that made trousers. Workers had not been getting paid on time until Awaj Foundation staff intervened, after which management paid salaries regularly. “Now we have a voice. They listen to workers,” said Lucky. “We didn’t understand overtime, if wages are properly calculated. Now we understand if we are cheated or not.”
Khairul Islam, a 23-year-old who wears a shiny blue Adidas shirt with a World Cup logo, worked at the same factory. Even that small subcontractor had fire-safety training and improved health and safety practices, such as better cleanliness, clear access to exits, and face masks.
But the factory where Lucky and Khairul worked closed in March, perhaps due to dwindling business as international clothing brands crack down on unregulated subcontractors. They were given one month’s severance pay; not long ago they would have received nothing.
Lucky and Khairul, along with about 300 others from the factory, are looking for work. Both of their families depend on their income, and both say there are no viable jobs back in their villages. Yet they were not outwardly dejected and said they will keep looking. With luck, their new jobs will be in safer factories with better pay and benefits.
Garment workers themselves may play a role in those improvements. Rosina, a sewing-machine operator in her 20s who goes by one name, attended the BIGUF meeting in Gazipur. She became a union leader in spite of resistance from her family, who opposed this non-traditional role for a woman. Rosina carried on and eventually her family relented. “Many problems in our factory. I will try to solve problems,” said Rosina. “Trade union is our right.”
This story was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.