The role of factory owners in ensuring workplace safety

M Jalal Hussain | Saturday, 17 September 2016

Bangladesh is a low-cost emerging economy with the status of lower middle-income country, where apparels manufacturing and exports have become an important livelihood of millions of people from both urban and rural areas. It's the major labour-intensive sector of the country and the biggest source of export earnings. Eighty per cent of export earnings of the country comes from this sector. But several catastrophes that have befallen apparel factories, claiming thousands of lives, have become the subject of much concern within the country and beyond, particularly among the world-famous buyers, trade unions, and regulatory authorities.  The industry sector has been beleaguered by building collapses, frequent fires and other avoidable industrial accidents. The latest such accident occurred on September 10, 2016 at Tempaco Foils Ltd. in Tongi, Gazipur. At least 34 people are dead, nine more are missing and a further few dozens of people are injured from the devastating fire. Accidents in factories have become common. At least 13 people died in a fire at a plastic factory last year. In 2012, 112 workers died in a fire at a factory just outside Dhaka and the country had the greatest tragedy in 2013 when 1, 135 people were killed as Rana Plaza, a garment complex collapsed at the outskirts of Dhaka.
Avoidable accidents are happening in this ill-fated country due to negligence of so many people that makes it difficult to determine the singularity of negligence. So where does the responsibility lie to ensure that such accidents are prevented: the government of Bangladesh?  Local manufacturers? The international world-class buyers that source their clothing there? Charles Kernaghen, Director of International Global Labour and Human Rights, is quoted by CNN stating: "These are the lowest wages in the world, and the factories with the worst health and safety conditions. Yet the big companies love the cheap wages, the long hours, because they are all about the costs."
The NY Times quotes one expert from the University of California, Berkeley that the prices paid by western buyers in Bangladesh "are so low that they are at the root of why these factories are cutting corners on fire safety and building safety." Bloomberg reports that at a meeting in Dhaka, attended by many of the largest US retailers, including Wal-Mart, to discuss a memorandum that would require the retailers to pay for improvements, the buyers refused. Wal-Mart representatives are quoted to have said that modifications needed to improve fire and safety standards are costly, and with 5,500 such factories, the cost would be cost-ineffective for the buyers. It's a fact that the owners of the factories and their world-class buyers want to save costs, costing the lives of hundreds of workers.
WORKER SAFETY: Well-drafted and well-articulated local and international laws are there to protect and ensure safety of workers at factory premises. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were signed unanimously by all member states in March 2011 including Bangladesh, provide a framework for defining the roles and responsibilities of both governments and businesses regarding human rights. It's based on a framework of three separate 'pillars': Protect, Respect and Remedy. This framework can be applied in situations where any human right impacts could occur, including breaches of labour rights in a workplace. As the right to safe work is a recognised labour right, the UN framework can and should be applied to the issue of hazardous workplaces. States and business owners, therefore, have great responsibilities to take action to protect and respect their citizens and the community where business operates in order to ensure that workplaces meet international and national standards on health and safety at work. 
All workers have the right to work in an environment which is safe and not harmful to their health. The ILO Constitution sets forth the principle that workers should be protected from sickness, disease and injury arising from their employment and have established a number of conventions to promote this principle. ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health outlines action to be taken by governments and within enterprises to promote occupational safety and health and to improve working conditions. This convention has not been ratified by the government of Bangladesh.
In addition to international laws and international organisations, Bangladesh has its different directorates under different ministries to look after factories and the safety, protection and rights of workers. There are Fire and Civil Defence for overseeing factories fire and safety conditions, Boiler Department (Chief Inspector of Boiler) to look after boilers at different factories,  the Labour Directorate to look after workers' rights, to name a few. There are a few associations of manufacturers, employers and employees, namely Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters  Association (BKMEA),  Bangladesh Textile Mills Association (BTMA) and trade unions in different organisations to oversee and look after factories and their safety conditions. Some international companies like Accord and Alliance give compliance certificates to different industries, especially apparel industries. Now, the question is: what do these departments, organizations do for the safety, protection and security of the factory workers? 
There is a comprehensive law on boiler control and regulations. The Boiler Act 1923, the Boiler Regulations 1951 (amended in 2007) have wide-ranging provisions for control, starting from purchase of boiler to running and maintaining boiler at factories' premises. The owner of any factory, who purchases a boiler, must have registration for boiler and a boiler licence that's renewable annually. 
Similarly, the Rana Plaza tragedy that killed 1,137 people due to building collapse could have been avoided if everyone did his/her jobs properly and building codes were followed strictly. Regulations and building codes are rarely fully enforced by the concerned authorities. Apparently, corruption and politics play a major role in the construction industry. Building owners are able to exercise their influence to get around the law or to sway officials to sanction what they want. 
At least 18 certificates/licences are required to start an apparel (100% export-oriented) business in the country. These are ERC, IRC, Factory Labour Licence, Factory Layout Plan Approval, Boiler Certificate, Fire Licence, Environment Certificate, Chamber of Commerce & Industry Membership Certificate, BGMEA Membership Certificate, VAT Certificate, Trade Licence, EPB Enrolment Certificate, TIN Certificate, Bank Solvency Certificate, Memorandum and Article of the Company, Certificate of Incorporation, Bond Licence & General Bond and PDB Testimonial. Most of the licences and certificates are required to be renewed every year. It is an open secret that the stakeholders can manage the licences and certificates with or without complying with legal requirements.
According to the analysis of the Fire Risk Index (FRI) in Bangladesh, FRI results shows that the mean FRI is 2.8 on a scale of 5.0 for the fire hazard condition of our RMG sector, which signposts an alarming condition. The factory buildings are constructed very amateurishly. Most of the buildings have been converted from their use as residential or commercial set-ups to factories, violating building construction act as well as planning act. Low-grade construction quality, low-slung quality material use are very common which make the workplace unsafe, unprotected and increase the risk for building breakdown.
Preventive steps must be taken by the stakeholders and must be enforced by the authorities. But the main responsibility to safeguard and protect workers at factories lie with the owners of the factories and the authorities must compel them to go by the rules. Mere world-class seminars at five-star hotels, symposium and conferences at BGMEA or at the chambers of commerce, condolences from leaders won't stop the catastrophes. Establishing transparency and accountability in every government and private organisations is the crying need to halt the never-ending disasters at factories. Rooting out rampant corruption, enforcement of rule of law, justice and good governance at private, public and government organisations is a prerequisite for stopping deaths of people from fire, accidents, collapse of buildings at workplaces.
The writer, a Fellow Chartered Accountant of ICAB, is CFO of a private group of industries.
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