Cracks in the state-institutions demand repair

Sadeq Khan

Savar disaster killing at least 1127 garment factory workers has invited troubles for Bangladesh of immense and far-reaching proportions.
Savar disaster killing at least 1127 garment factory workers has invited troubles for Bangladesh of immense and far-reaching proportions.
Increasingly isolated from the public and unnerved by continued civil disorder accompanied by violent resistance to coercive police measures to silence socio-political dissent and labour unrest, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in the last leg of its tenure has promulgated an undeclared emergency. All meetings and assemblies in Dhaka city (and other places affected by natural disaster, according to the general secretary of the ruling party) have been prohibited initially for one month, and later sine die, according to the Home Minister. The Prime Minister has been talking about “a domestic as well as international conspiracy to oust the government.”
To intimidate domestic media, Sheikh Hasina’s government has on lame excuses arrested the editor of a newspaper, and contrived seizure of its printing press and stoppage of its publication, confiscated broadcasting equipment of two television channels — Diganta and Islamic TV— taking them off the air, and brought trumped-up charges to harass another editor and the mother of the first-named editor being the publisher of her son’s newspaper. Interestingly, the foreign media has taken up the cudgels for questioning the actions and motives of the Bangladesh government, particularly the Prime Minister herself.
Social media whispers
In two interviews with international TV channels, the Prime Minister faced hard talk with evasive answers. In one of them, she was directly questioned about social media whispers about the involvement of her family members in the Padma Bridge Project corruption conspiracy scandal, and about her perceived reluctance to allow the principal conspirator (former communications minister) to be put under the hammer of intensive investigation.
Apart from the blackened image of Bangladesh and its Prime Minister on account of the Padma Bridge corruption scandal, its fall-out has put Bangladesh into trouble with the World Bank. The World Bank’s refusal to provide budgetary support to the government has sobered the flippant Finance Minister to admit at last that he is at his wit’s end in balancing next financial year’s budget. But more than the Padma Bridge scandal, the Savar disaster killing and maiming garment factory workers in thousands has invited troubles for Bangladesh, if not the Prime Minister herself, of immense and far-reaching proportions.
ILO and World Bank
In the aftermath of the disaster and the end of the prolonged rescue process The Washington Post reported on May 18: “The International Labour Organization and World Bank have refused to let Bangladesh join a textile industry monitoring programme until the country overhauls its labour laws and conditions for unions improve.
“The strict stance by the ILO and World Bank, which jointly run the global Better Work program, is part of an international drive that is gaining pace following a series of deadly industrial accidents in Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment exporter and home to an estimated 5,000 textile plants.
“The Obama administration is working with Bangladesh to improve its safety inspection systems, while also pressuring the country with a threatened cut-off of trade tax breaks granted for some of the country’s exports.
Separately, lawmakers on Capitol Hill and religious and investment groups have been pressing U.S. retailers to join an alliance of mostly European companies that have agreed to outside inspections of the factories they use to supply garments. The rise of manufacturing centres such as Bangladesh has kept the retail prices of clothes in check for 20 years, and advocacy groups argue that the vigilance of major Western chains and brands is one of the surest ways to guarantee factory safety in the absence of an effective local government.”
Nobel Laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus termed the disaster “a symbol of our failure as a nation” and suggested damage control measures as follows:
“The crack in Rana Plaza that caused the collapse of the building has only shown us that if we don’t face up to the cracks in our state systems, we as a nation will get lost in the debris of the collapse.
Protect them from complete collapse
“The collapse of the eight-floor building in Savar was not merely a collapse. The collapse of the building is just a precursor to the imminent collapse of all our state institutions. If we look closely at the collapse of the Savar building, we can read the symptoms of collapse of our state institutions. We will have to find ways to fix the institutions to protect them from complete collapse.
“A very large foreign buyer has decided to pull out of Bangladesh because of the dangers of the garments industry here. Others may follow this example.
“We cannot allow this industry to be destroyed. Rather, we have to be united as a nation to strengthen the industry. The government, the leaders of the garments industry, the NGOs, the civil society all have to come forward in a united way to do this.
“We have to give complete reassurance to the foreign buyers that they will never again face this kind of danger, and that we are all united to take steps in order to achieve that, and will firmly carry out this commitment in the future.”
He called for formation of a Citizen’s Action Group for Protecting Garment Workers and Garment Industry for the purpose of advocacy with foreign retailers, consumers, and indignant rights group, and also coordination of actions with all stakeholders at home, the government, factory-owners, labour organisations, civil society etc. for a comprehensive action plan:
Because of the castigation by Pope Francis that buyers are treating the garment workers like slave labourers with $40 wage per month … my proposal is that the foreign buyers will jointly fix a minimum international wage level. For example, if the minimum wage is now 25 cents per hour in Bangladesh, then they will standardise minimum wage for garment industry as 50 cents per hour.
“Some will argue that Bangladesh may overnight lose the competitiveness it had gained for being a country offering ‘the cheapest labour.’ In order to retain its competitiveness, Bangladesh will have to increase its attractiveness in other ways, for example, increasing labour productivity, increasing specialised labour skills, regain the trust of buying companies, give assurance that no unfavourable situations will be created in future, and to ensure the complete welfare of the workers, and so on.
Ensuring international minimum wage
Until we are able to ensure this international minimum wage, we will not be able to pull out our workers from the grievous category of ‘slave labour,’ which was used by the Pope.”
Valuable suggestions also came from accomplished Bangladeshis abroad, who rallied for ‘saving’ Bangladeshi economy and its image abroad. On the matter of building improvement and structural safety, award-winning engineer Enamul Hoque, P.E., F. ASCE sent the following advice from Arizona, U.S.A.:
“The engineering and architectural issues associated with factory buildings are easy to solve but will definitely take time. Best option in this regard would be to adopt International Building Code 2011 by references except few provisions such as ground acceleration provided in earthquake engineering design of buildings.
“While Bangladesh developed its own building codes in 1995 via a code committee consisting of government officials, consulting engineers and university professors, the codes, in reality  this code had never been implemented.  Besides, as the technology had been changing and factories or industries are utilizing modern equipments and methods, the owners focus to maximum the use of space to maximize production, there are inherent lag in adopting codes that were developed.  In this regard, few members of the American Association of Bangladeshi Engineers and Architects (AABEA) who are associated with building and construction industry in the USA had met and developed the following outline of the immediate steps to be taken to initiate compliance of the industry to minimize loss of life and property. The outline, especially the design and construction requirements are heavily drawn from International Building Code (IBC).
In existing buildings to be used for large numbers of workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidelines for safety and health of individual workers. In fact OSHA admits and empowers each employee to have right for a safe work place and their right to demand to address any and all issues that requires attention.
“First step might be to concentrate on developing the administrative and training of man power portion as outlined in IBC, OSHA and other codes.  In this regard, AABEA will be best suited to act as bridge between the regulators over in Bangladesh and the code requirements.”
Compliance inspections
Fortunately for Bangladesh, some European retailers also took responsibility of gap in their compliance inspections over building safety. The New York Times reported that in the second week of May, six big apparel retailers, including H&M and Inditex, have agreed to sign a far-reaching and legally binding plan that requires the buyers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in the factories they use in Bangladesh.
Sweden-based H&M, which is one of the largest buyers of garments from Bangladesh, said it would increase pressure on other Western retailers and apparel brands to do likewise. Within hours of H&M’s statement, C&A of the Netherlands and Primark, a low-price British retailer, also joined in.
Regarding remedial developments on the home front, Rubana Huq, Managing Director of a leading garment manufacturer, the Mohammadi Group, succinctly summarised continuing concerns as in Mid-May in article in The Wall Street Journal:
“The government has proposed an increase in the minimum wage, but would make the increase retroactive to May 1. That will simply be impossible for manufacturers who are already locked into supply contracts for the next few months.
Meanwhile, an agreement announced between European retailers and workers’ advocates this week, may lead to investment in safety enhancements. But many ground realities will continue to haunt the industry unless land and transitional funds are readily available to turn out-of-date factories into fully equipped and compliant facilities. The approximate calculation to set these factories up, assuming 2,600 square meters per floor would cost approximately $128,000 per factory.
Some factory owners may be in pursuit of a quick profit. But for many of us, the problem is not that we don’t want to have gleaming, fully up-to-date factories or to pay our workers a living wage. Rather, it’s that we don’t have the resources. And we have to balance the costs against the risk that purchasers will turn to other, lower-cost countries. That would be a disaster for Bangladesh, where 20 million people depend on garment workers for financial support.”
In a follow-up article published in Dhaka, she wrote jointly with her husband Annisul Huq, a former President of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the following remedial prescription:
“Under Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), we have 4,382 factories, employing around 3.5 million workers. Of the total, Dhaka has 3,292 factories, Chittagong 788 and Narayanganj 314. A total of 2,068 factories are direct exporters with UD (utilisation declaration) status and the rest are indirect exporters, as per BGMEA data.
Under Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), there are 1,870 plus registered factories that employ 600,000 plus workers. Of these, 900 directly export obtaining UD; 500 of these factories could be rated as Tier 1 and the remaining 400 as Tier 2 and 3. There are 270 factories that are associate accessory units, while the rest 700 is reported not to be in production or has no existence.
In reality, there are a few hundred factories that are closed in both BGMEA and BKMEA. The system has allowed the leakage and there are many factories that exist possibly only on paper because of many bad years in business.
The first step would be to exercise diligence and scrutinise the existence of all factories falling under Tier 1, 2, 3, closed, and registered factories without any existence.
Relocation
“Relocation is going to be the next big requirement for a medium and long-term solution. Of the factories we have, almost 33 percent have 100 percent compliance problems or can be identified as Tier 3 factories.
“Ideally, a worker needs approximately 50 square feet of space in a compliant factory. If 500 workers of a small factory need to move, they will need 25,000 square feet of floor space.
The government should kindly provide raised land at subsidised price, which can be paid by the manufacturers. The total requirement per project for 1,000 factories will be Tk 10,000 crore which could initially be funded by the government and later adjusted gradually from the exporters’ export proceeds. The related infrastructure and utilities must also be provided by the government.
“Brands shop for the best price, quality, quantity and compliance. If the first one, price, comes under discussion, they still have the option to source from other competitive markets. Given that we have the maximum capacity to offer, will simply capacity be enough to hold back a customer from moving to other countries?
Before taking any step further, BGMEA, along with the government should have discussions with the brands on how far the brand’s pocket can be stretched.
Building code
“As for the fire safety and building code, a few brands have signed up to fund and monitor factory audits, independent of the country’s regulations.
“The cost of turning a Tier 3 factory to Tier 1 would cost around $12,000. Equipment alone would cost Tk 700,000 (a public address system would cost Tk 200,000) while fire training to 100 percent workers would cost another Tk 215,000. Therefore, factories that have sound structure could easily re-address their fire safety issues and remedy them immediately on a short-term basis.”
While a rallying cry to protect the garments sector, the backbone of industrial employment and export in the country, is very much in place at home and abroads one wonders whether the troubled government will have the capacity or the command over the public and the state institutions to play its part. Many wonder after listening to Nobel Laureate Prof. Yunus, how to save the state institutions from imminent collapse under the regimes ill-fated omissions and commissions.
Source: Weekly Holiday

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