Concerted efforts by relevant stakeholders followed by tragic Rana Plaza collapse have gained considerable amount of progress in establishing good governance at the ready-made garment (RMG) sector. However, significant shortcomings still prevail in the major foreign currency earning sector and a lot of reform initiatives taken since the deadliest incident are yet to be implemented, a fact-finding research study by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) observed. The study, citing lengthy judicial process associated with the Rana Plaza collapse and other industrial cases an unfortunate impediment to trying the people responsible for the deadliest garment incidents recommended formation of a speedy tribunal for quick disposal of the cases, and establishment of single authority in the long run for centralized supervision and coordination in regulating issues to speed up the implementation of the reform initiatives.
The fact-finding study, fourth of its kind, since Rana Plaza collapse aimed to review the progress and current state of the notable reform initiatives taken after Rana Plaza incident to establish good governance in the sector. To unveil the study findings of the report titled “Good Governance in the RMG Sector: Progress and Challenges”, TIB organized a Press Conference at its Dhaka office on 26 April 2018 where Chairperson, Board of Trustees of TIB Advocate Sultana Kamal and Executive Director Dr. Iftekharuzzaman were present. Mohammad Rafiqul Hasan, Director, and Md. Waheed Alam, Senior Programme Manager, of Research and Policy division of TIB also attended the event. Nazmul Huda Mina, Assistant Programme Manager, Research and Policy division presented the research findings at the event.
The study observed that factory owners have been continuing disproportionate attention to the growth of RMG export and sustaining their businesses; however, rights of workers and their social protection have not received due attention. Legal limitations prevail for ensuring rights of workers. avoiding tendency of both the relevant government entities and buyer parties in reforming factories. According to the study, 39% of 102 different initiatives, taken by stakeholders since the 2013 industrial disaster, had been implemented, but a whopping 41% of targeted activities had not yet been implemented while the remaining 20% of tasks were making slow progress. The study recommended to set up a single authority in the long run for centralized supervision and coordination in regulating issues to ensure transparency in the apparel sector as factory owners needed to obtain licenses and clearances from 17 departments in absence of coordination among the regulatory bodies.
Conducted in between May 2017 and March 2018, the study identified significant progress in the areas of safety and security in factories, supervision, labor wages, efficiency of government organizations. However, challenges have been identified in setting up fire stations, appointment of required inspectors, making the online services user-friendly.
Some 400,000 workers lost their jobs as around 1,200 factories were shut down for different reasons following the Rana Plaza disaster that left 1,134 workers dead and countless more maimed, the study revealed. According to the report, lack of political will and influence of factory owners persist which influence the formation of a conducive environment for ensuring workers' collective bargain. According to the study, 40 out of 102 major initiatives in the last five years by factory owners, the government, buyers, and retailers to strengthen the workplace safety and improve workers' rights were fully implemented, 42 are still under process and 20 have been closed down.
Citing the findings, Dr. Iftekharuzzaman said “Though the sector achieved notable progress in the past five years, a majority of the initiatives which have been implemented mainly focused on expanding the business of factory owners, generating profits and increasing productivity. Unfortunately, the workers were not getting the benefits of the progress and the initiatives that could have improved labor rights have not been fully implemented to date. Exporters, importers and producers did not properly bear the responsibility of strengthening working place safety.” The existing trade unions are still being controlled by a section of influential leaders deployed by factory owners. As a result, workers can't enjoy the benefits of the labour law reforms, he added.
Advocate Sultana Kamal said, “The reform measures taken by factory owners are meant to maximize their benefits and safeguard their businesses, not to protect workers’ rights. Apart from owners, workers are a big stakeholder of a factory. Therefore, it’s imperative that both parties work for the betterment of the industry.”
On the other hand, there have not been notable progress regarding compensation for the loss of job, commensurate compensation for accident, maternity benefits, freedom of association, social safety for severe injuries etc. Risks prevail for durable improvement of the sector due to financial and technical inability of RCC. Further, due to inordinate delay in legal process, punishment cannot be dispensed to the offenders of accidents and worker rights and accountability of relevant stakeholders cannot be ensured. There is no safety inspector in 147 RMG factories, and the absence of necessary fire-extinguishing equipment in many high-rise factories also poses significant fire and explosion risks. The study in its recommendation part, stressed to stop such unethical practices including closing factories, not compensating workers in case of termination and not offering fair prices of apparel items, withdrawal of the provision of giving group insurance premium from the Central Fund.
On slow progress of Rana Plaza trial, Advocate Sultana Kamal blamed the prevailing trend of impeding quick disposal of cases at the judicial system through unfair influences and legal loopholes by the influential class. “Though the incident took place in broad daylight, there is still no penalty on the main charges. This is very unfortunate and such efforts of influencing the system bring negative impacts on reform initiatives and overall governance” she added. Dr. Iftekharuzzaman said, "Those responsible for the industrial accidents are yet to be brought under the jurisdiction because of a lengthy process and others. In some cases, we believe, there are lack of political willingness," He recommended formation of a speedy tribunal to quickly dispose of the cases filed against industrial accidents including Rana Plaza building collapse.
According to the study, the surviving Rana Plaza victims and relatives of the deceased have not received compensation yet, as the money that has so far been provided to them was financial assistance. Dr. Zaman said, “Compensation and financial assistance is not the same thing. It is a matter of concern that the Rana Plaza victims are yet to get compensation which is a collative failure of the government, factory owners and buyers. Concerned authorities should take immediate steps to settle the issue with high importance as it is related to overall governance.”
To ensure good governance in the RMG sector, the study recommended, among others, to ensure legal rights of workers specially in setting wage, overtime, leave through a coordinated effort of all stakeholders and government oversight with enhancement; ensure creation of a fund with the participation of relevant stakeholders for ensuring compliance of sub-contract and small factories and easy access to the fund of those factories; enhance financial and technical capacity of the RCC have through collective efforts of the government, buyers and ILO; and appoint neutral observers to oversee the operations of RCC and bring the buyers under legal obligation for making the operation of RCC sustainable.