Six years after one of the world’s most devastating factory disasters, moves to cut international safety monitoring of Bangladesh clothes factories led Wednesday to warnings of a new threat to lives.
Hundreds of workers attended commemorations for the collapse of the nine-floor rabbit warren of textile factories at Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, that killed 1,138 workers.
Some laid wreaths at a makeshift memorial, demanding justice for the victims as well as highlighting their safety fears.
“Six years have passed since the disaster, yet nothing has happened to the perpetrators. The victims haven’t had any justice. Six years later, safety issues in the factories have not been fixed,” said Joly Talukder, a top union leader.
Under intense pressure at the time, top brands such as H&M, Inditex, Carrefour and Gap set up two watchdogs to look at more than 4,500 factories that make clothes for Western stores.
One, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, has already wrapped up after reviewing nearly 1,000 factories that produced mostly for US brands.
The future of the Accord on Fire and Building safety, representing some 200 European labels such as H&M, Primark and Tesco, is to be decided by Bangladesh’s Supreme Court after a lower court ruled it should also wind up.
Laura Gutierrez of the Worker Rights Consortium, a US-based labour group, warned that ending the international oversight “will have grim consequences for workers and factory owners”.
It “will cause brands to see the country as a far riskier place to produce,” she added.
Christie Miedema of the Clean Clothes Campaign said progress on safety “will be lost –- setting the country on a path back to the situation before the Rana Plaza collapse”.
H&M, Zara, Adidas, Tesco and Next have backed concerns raised by the labour groups.
British brand Next said that “any early termination of the current Accord operations in Bangladesh would be detrimental to the safety of workers in the readymade garment industry there”.
Accord says it needs more time to enforce safety in the 1,700 factories it has reviewed so far. The manufacturers argue that the programme’s five-year mandate has already expired.
– Major fires –
The Bangladesh government says factory fatalities have declined since the disaster and argues that the national inspection agency can now handle the enforcement of factory safety alone.
However, two major fires in Dhaka — in which 100 people died — have highlighted the lingering dangers.
One of those tore through a 22-storey building that housed several garment businesses. A probe found it breached multiple construction rules and many fire exits were locked.
Despite this, the influential Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) says it wants international oversight to end.
The textile companies fear monitors could start looking into other worker rights issues, in an industry where minimum wages start at $95 dollars a month, critics say.
They say also that Bangladesh’s factory inspection agency, which would take over the monitors’ work, lacks the means and desire to push through costly safety upgrades.
But Shib Nath Roy, head of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), said the agency was now better placed than the international monitors to take on the work.
He said it had had “made significant progress” with scores of extra inspectors employed since the Rana Plaza disaster.
A consortium of groups campaigning for garment workers’ rights, including the Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labour Rights Forum, say none of the 745 factories in a government inspection programme has yet eliminated “high risk safety hazards” identified in the past five years.
“Our research shows a shocking level of unreadiness” by the government to take over Accord’s work, they said in a report this month.