The economy in Bangladesh is connected to the clothes Americans buy in many stores, including national retailers. The readymade garment industry in Bangladesh has been rocked by several major industrial accidents, leading to large scale worker protests calling for improved building and fire safety. The garment workers are also demanding better working conditions and higher minimum wages.
After several industrial accidents, where hundreds of people have died, attention turned to the stores selling the clothes. This put pressure on the industry and government in Bangladesh to take steps to improve the safety of garment factories.
From the outset labor groups raised concerns this response was weak and slow. Garment workers were also skeptical of initial agreements to address the problem. But the government of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said they are working to improve the overall conditions of the workers.
The ready-made garment sector (RMG) in Bangladesh has become the backbone of the south Asian nation’s economy, producing around 80 percent of the country's exports. This makes Bangladesh the second largest garment exporter in the world. The rapid growth of clothing manufacturing in the nation is providing vital jobs to its people, helping to pull them out of poverty. The industry is characterized by low cost, fast production, relying on cheap labor.
To support the demand, manufacturers are converting many buildings built for other purposes into factories without getting required permits. Workers say these conversions are completed as cheaply and quickly as possible, resulting in widespread safety problems. Faulty electrical circuits, poor ventilation, inadequate escape routes and installation of equipment too heavy for the structure are a few of the many issues. The Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013 killed more than 1,100 workers. In late November 2012, at least 117 were confirmed dead in the Tazreen Fashion factory accident.
While workers continue to push for higher wages, one leader among women garment workers, Nazma Begum says they’re also struggling for better working conditions. After these incidents the government and a garment industry trade group gave them hope they will take the necessary actions to protect employees, but Begum says those promised changes have gone nowhere.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) president Atiqul Islam says this institution plays a vital role for the development of the industry in the country. Islam says the group ensures better minimum wages for workers, even raising the pay an average of 81 percent. The organization is also concerned about building fire safety, taking urgent action to ensure the workers’ security and creating a more peaceful work place.
Islam says, “BGMEA also hires firefighters from different agencies and we are giving them the training. The trained firefighters, we'll send them to the different factories for the TOT (Training of Trained) Program. It’s what we want to do, this kind of thing -- so these positive matters has been taken from this institution(BGMEA), and there still are a lot of things going on.”
Member of Parliament, Israfil Alam, agrees. He says the government has already initiated some substantive work on occupational safety and health for ready-made garment sector workers.
But the former president of the garment trade association, Anisul Haque, says the industry still needs to be more safe and sustainable. Haque also says it will take time to make all the needed changes.
Anisul Haque says, “Easy to complain but it’s also true (we have) substantial improvements. It’s a large industry and we know that there are 3 types of factories that are existing. One is a good one, one is a subcontracted factory, which is neither so good or so bad. And the third, which is 50% of the factories, is not compliant. If you want, you cannot really achieve miracles overnight. So if you really are set on improvement, I would say there is improvement.”
Regardless of the role, most involved in Bangladesh’s garment business realize change is needed if the industry is to survive. And with nearly all of the nation’s exports coming from clothing, the government, employers, workers, international buyers and other stakeholders have a reason to work together to promote sustainable change in the ready-made garment sector.
Abeda Sultana is a reporter for RTV, National Television Limited in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and is visiting KGOU and the United States on an exchange program run by the U.S. State Department.
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