Bangladesh has experienced rapid growth and development in the past decade, with an average growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 6.4 per cent since 2010. The World Bank has classified Bangladesh as a lower middle-income country since 2014. The garment sector of Bangladesh — the biggest contributor to the country’s export earnings — is now the second largest exporter of ready-made garments (RMG) after China. The garment industry is also making strides in becoming a more sustainable market for investment and sourcing through an improved policy framework, better working conditions, adoption of energy efficient production processes, and building backward linkages.
The sector, however, has also experienced significant setbacks in recent years. The devastating incidents of the Tazreen Group factory fire in 2012 and the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 raised widespread international attention to the working conditions in the RMG sector, and the role of international buyers in protecting workers at supplier factories. Subsequently, there have been numerous multi-stakeholder efforts to improve the safety conditions in workplaces inside the RMG industry from employers’ organisations, the government, unions, civil society organisations, international organisations, as well as global brands.
Some positive trends in improving worker welfare and workplace safety worth noting include the 2013 amendment of the Labour Act 2006, which brought about changes including the adoption of the National Occupational Health and Safety Policy. The amendment of the Labour Act 2006 also made it easier to register trade unions; as a result of which, according to the MOLE, 351 new trade unions were established in the sector. In addition, two groups were formed in 2013 to help improve workplace health and safety conditions in the garment sector. These groups represent the majority of American and European apparel brands and retail companies, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
Most of the changes and initiatives as well as factory inspections in the field of occupational health and safety (OHS), however, are centred around export-oriented factories. A large volume of RMG production is still done in unregistered, informal, subcontracting factories that are outside the purview of inspections by the government or other agencies. Running on extremely low capital investments, these factories do not provide adequate working conditions or protection for their employees, making workers vulnerable to violations of labour law and safety codes.
Moreover, there is still a long way to go for the global apparel brands to achieve complete transparency and accountability towards the workers and consumers. Globally, employers and buyers are still reluctant to share complete information about their sourcing factories, making it difficult for the government and civil society to hold companies accountable for workplace safety and security. In line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a Transparency Pledge was endorsed in 2016 by a nine-member coalition of labour and human rights organisations and global unions to urge large global apparel brands to publish supplier factory information. A total of 72 companies were contacted to sign the pledge, out of which only 17 have endorsed the standard; 18 are ‘moving in the right direction’; 7 are ‘taking small steps to providing information’; and 25 showed no commitment or no response5.
Bangladesh has yet to ratify key international labour conventions including the Minimum Wage Fixing Convention, 1970 (C131), Collective Bargaining Convention, 1981 (C154), and Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (C138). Although there are no official reports of child labour in the garment industry, it is still common to find children working in the sector, particularly in supply chain factories such as spinning mills. Similarly, there are still reports of harassment of union leaders by factory management, as well as practical barriers to union registration.Download