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Labor Market

Cleaning up Bangladesh's textile industry

Western and local organizations have been working together for a year to help make the Bangladeshi textile industry safer. But the process isn't always running smoothly, especially when it comes to payments for workers.

The recent calls for help from workers of the Irish clothing retailer, Primark, have reignited the debate about the working conditions in the global textile industry. It is unclear whether these calls are genuine, and where they exactly come from; what is clear is that Primark has many clothing factories in Bangladesh.

With its four million textile workers, and an annual export volume of around 16 billion euros, Bangladesh is the second-largest textile producer in the world after China. But its textile industry is prone to accidents. Who can forget the images from the April 2013 factory building collapse near Dhaka? More than 1,100 people, including men and women, died in the incident.

Security agreement

After coming under fire both nationally and internationally, an unprecedented comprehensive "Accord on Fire and Building Safety" was reached in Bangladesh. Around 180 companies - mostly from Europe - international and local trade unions, Bangladeshi employers, exporters and government are part of this agreement. The objective of this Accord is to make the lives of Bangladeshi textile workers safer.

"It is a huge task," Brad Loewen, Accord's chief safety inspector, told DW. Loewen, along with 140 domestic and foreign observers, is responsible for inspecting over 1600 factories in the South Asian country. They have already checked 750 so far.

"We have discovered typical areas of concern: insufficiently protected exits, faulty electrical systems, and excessive structural loads," Loewen said. "We also suggested evacuations when we saw that the building structure was weak and there was a risk of collapse. The Accord makes sure that everyone in the building is aware of the risk," he added.

"14 factories have been found risky - the load has exceeded the capacity of the buildings," Amirul Haque Amin, President of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), told DW, adding that in four factories, the production had been stopped or suspended. "For the other ten, the inspection teams have recommended the owners to minimize the risk by reducing heavy equipment and the number of staff."

Who will pay for it?

But there is not always an agreement on these recommendations. In some cases, factory owners simply refuse to implement the remedial measures. There are disputes over the concrete strength in the buildings as well as over the remediation costs and wage losses.

After protests from textile workers, the Bangladeshi garment exporters agreed to increase workers' salaries. They argue that both the demonstrations and the required remediation measures are having a negative effect on business. For that reason, many factory owners shy away from investing in building security and improved working conditions, believes Maik Pflaum of "Clean Clothes Campaign" - a European network working for the rights of textile workers.

Primark bags
(Photo: dpa - Bildfunk+++)

Bangladesh is a major supplier to Western companies thanks to the low wages and cheap production costs

"However, under the Accord agreement, wages and remediation costs lie within the responsibility of the factory owners. The Western companies have pledged to grant them planning security for future investments, for instance, by granting them long-term commitments to purchase or by simply paying higher unit prices," Pflaum told DW.

But Amin says neither the factory owners nor international brands are willing to take the responsibility. "We are committed to ensuring that both parties play their role. But so far, that has not happened," the trade union leader said. "However, the discussion is ongoing. From the trade union side, we are raising our voice that all the workers must get compensation, which is the responsibility of the factory owners as well as international brands."

New structures required

The stalemate is benefiting the Bangladesh Alliance for Worker Safety - an association of 26 American companies including CAP and Wal-Mart. The organization also inspects partner factories and recommends security measures.

"For every factory closure, Alliance is sharing 50 percent of the wages with the factory owners. In contrast, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety is not paying anything," claims Shahidullah Azim, vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). "There should be similar parameters and policies for Alliance and the Accord, otherwise the government and the factory owners will become confused," he added. The local unions and international observers have warned that these two groups should not be considered as rivals. Both, they say, are committed to the safety of Bangladeshi garment workers.

However, there is a significant difference between the two: the Bangladesh Alliance for Worker Safety is purely entrepreneurial and does not involve trade unions, unlike the Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

A rescuer carries an injured person after a building collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, April 24, 2013
(Photo: Xinhua/Shariful Islam)

Many textile workers who survived the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013 are still waiting to see compensation

"The Alliance was founded to bypass the Accord," explained Pflaum. "The companies that are part of the Accord contribute to a common fund established for inspections and training programs. H&M, for example, pays half a million dollars per year, but at the same time, it gives away direct control over the use of these funds. Obviously factory owners are happy when they receive cash from Alliance. But this has no long-term structural benefits."

In contrast, Pflaum says, the Accord empowers local unions so that they can continue to work independently after the five-year long contract expires.

By the autumn of this year, the Accord's first phase of factories' inspection will be over. Everyone involved in this complex process is at least clear about one thing: there is much to be done yet, so that no Bangladeshi textile worker will feel forced to seek foreign help.