second largest apparel exporting country in the world

A paradigm shift in garment industry

GMT 04:13 2015 Sunday ,03 May

Sriyadithatextile - A paradigm shift in garment industry

Bangladesh Garment Industry workers
Courtesy Google

Success stories are always full of sweet and sour events since achievements do not come on a silver platter. What could be a better example of this than our garment industry? 

The industry that emerged as a small non-traditional sector in export in the late 1970s has now become crucial to our economy as the main source of export earnings and employment generation. Beginning its journey with only 130 workers and export earnings of $12,000, it is now a $25-billion sector that employs around 4.4 million people, 80 percent of whom are women. 

Now we are the second largest apparel exporting country in the world and the sector has been contributing to the economy with export earnings, employment generation, women empowerment and poverty alleviation for the last 35 years.

Was the sector's journey rosy? The answer is a simple no. It has faced a number of challenges, including child labour issues, multi-fibre arrangement phase-out, and global recession.

We have dealt with these challenges and been able to sustain growth. However, the biggest challenge for the industry emerged after the tragic building collapse in 2013. Many thought the incident would mark the end of the sector's journey. But what we have seen is a new beginning. The industry that transformed the economy and lives of millions of people has itself been transformed.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building was a wake-up call for us -- a call to turn around and build a safe and sustainable industry. We can proudly say that as a nation, we have once again proved that we can face any challenge, be it natural or manmade. Given the size of our apparel industry, ensuring worker safety in the garment factories was a daunting task for us but we took up the challenge and it is heartening to see that significant progress has been made in the areas of safety, including fire, and electrical and structural safety, in the garment factories.

For the first time in the history of the global garment industry, all stakeholders have realised that ensuring safety and wellbeing of the workers is a shared responsibility and this feeling has inspired governments, brands, buyers, suppliers, entrepreneurs, and workers to work hand-in-hand.

 

This is probably the only instance in the world where brands and buyers who compete with each other have come together to make an industry safe and sustainable. European brands and buyers formed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety while the North American ones initiated the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The National Tripartite Action Plan for Building and Fire Safety was adopted by the government as well. 

Till now, 2,643 factories have been inspected by three initiatives -1,261 by Accord, 647 by Alliance and 735 factories by National Action Plan.

What is more encouraging is that only around 1.25 percent of the inspected factories were found vulnerable and closed down immediately. All the inspection reports of the factories are available at the Fair Factory Clearinghouse (FFC) database, which is accessible by all the buyers, making our progress ever more transparent and credible.

Moreover, factories are implementing corrective action plans provided by Accord and Alliance. The government has taken a number of steps to augment the safety initiatives. The Directorate of Inspection for Factories and Establishments has been upgraded to the status of a department. The government has recruited 200 inspectors, made the import of safety equipment duty-free and launched a safety hotline for workers. 

Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association also took a number of steps to supplement workplace safety efforts by forming a team of 35 fire trainers in December 2013. This team trained 83,678 workers and staff members in 2,386 factories. BGMEA runs a "crash programme" on fire safety and so far 20,188 personnel of 2,342 factories have been trained. 

We have also made significant progress in the areas of knowledge, awareness and rights issues. The Labour Law 2006 was amended within just 90 days of the building collapse, making the law more favourable towards ensuring worker rights. The dramatic progress in new trade union registration is a tangible result of this amendment. Until 2012, there were only 138 trade unions in the sector; from January 2013 till now, 304 new trade unions have been registered. 

The minimum wage of the garment workers has also been increased by 219 percent over the past five years. The Better Work Programme has been launched by International Labour Organisation and International Finance Corporation. 

There goes an old adage that every cloud has a silver lining and it best relates to our garment industry. When all the inspections will be over and the factories complete their corrective action plans, the garment industry of Bangladesh can be regarded as the safest industry in the world.

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