Bangladesh’s Chance to Get It Right

New York Times, Fixes

April 23, 2014

Bangladesh is hardly known for its workplace safety. But one unlikely success story can be found in a leading shipbuilding company called Western Marine, based in the port city of Chittagong. Western Marine makes ships for the domestic market but has also sold vessels to Germany and Denmark.

What happened at Western Marine also has important lessons for garment factories, global retailers, the Bangladeshi government and aid agencies as they strive to make garment factories safer nearly a year after the world’s deadliest garment factory disaster, the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, which killed 1,129 people and injured 2,515.

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How does a shipyard fit into all this? As recently as February 2011, Western Marine counted 1,000 injuries a month out of a work force of 3,500. The shockingly high injury rate was due to lack of helmets, boots, goggles, gloves and ear protectors, and equipment such as safety harnesses (for working on tall ships); stable scaffolding; and ventilation fans in enclosed spaces.

Workers at the Western Marine shipyard in Chittagong

Din Muhammad ShiblyWorkers at the Western Marine shipyard in Chittagong

The German aid agency GIZ had approached Western Marine in 2009 when it saw that the company was selling ships to Germany. And an international safety consultant was hired after a welder without protective gear was electrocuted in 2010. The consultant’s report showed that eye injuries were a particular problem and added to the high injury rate; that virtually all the injuries were easily avoidable; and, remarkably, that hardly any standards existed to prevent such incidents.

Western Marine workers were trained to use the protective gear. Notices in English and Bangla, and pictorial signs for illiterate workers, were put up throughout the shipyard. At first, some workers didn’t want to wear hard hats, boots and goggles in Chittagong’s hot climate. But those who didn’t follow rules received verbal warnings, got further training and were even fined or fired. Western Marine also gave bonuses to workers who used proper safety gear. Strict enforcement at the shipyard had almost immediate results. Over the next 15 months, Western Marine dramatically reduced its injury rate by 99 percent, to 10 a month by June 2012, from 1,000.

“We were impressed to see the progress was so fast and drastic,” said Sakhawat Hossain, the managing director of Western Marine. “We did not expect it to happen so; our buyers were also surprised.”

Western Marine had not intended to seek international certification but ended up doing so since it was using those guidelines anyway. By August 2012, the shipyard was awarded the world’s most reputable occupational health and safety management standard, OHSAS 18001. It also received ISO 14001, the internationally recognized standard for environment management. It was the only shipyard and one of few companies in Bangladesh to have both certificates. Western Marine says the certifications have led to new ship orders from New Zealand, Tanzania and Kenya.

During the 40-month partnership between Western Marine and GIZ, the shipbuilder paid 250,000 euros of the cost of equipment and implementing safety programs while the German aid agency contributed 265,000 euros. It was a significant amount of money for Western Marine, but the company found that treatment costs for workers at its clinic dropped from 15,000 euros a year in 2010 to only 341 euros in 2012. Workers were far more productive in general. There was also a strong business case for the OHSAS and ISO certifications, since they are increasingly required for eligibility to bid on international shipping contracts.

The Western Marine shipyard
Din Muhammad Shibly The Western Marine shipyard

“We say: if you think training and safety is expensive, try an accident. We avoid accidents by spending money on training and safety,” said Captain Abdur Razzak Bhuiyan, Western Marine’s commercial director, in a GIZ report.

Making meaningful improvements across Bangladesh’s garment factories and other industries, such as tanneries, is a much larger challenge than doing so at a single company, even one with 3,500 employees like Western Marine.

Bangladesh has more than 5,000 garment factories, but a year ago there were only 19 factory inspectors for all of them, and about as many fire and building inspectors. The disaster at Rana Plaza — which lacked permits for industrial use, and where rampant local corruption had allowed extra floors to be added illegally — also highlighted the wider problem of unsafe construction. Inspecting buildings is more expensive and complicated than other checks because it requires engineering analysis and possibly lab testing of foundation materials.

Improving garment factories is imperative for Bangladesh. After the Rana Plaza collapse, the backlash against global retailers and the “made in Bangladesh” label was harsh and swift. Yet ordinary Bangladeshis would suffer if apparel companies pulled out of the country. Bangladesh is the second largest maker of “ready-made garments” after China. The industry helped annual economic growth reach 6 percent in recent years; garments represent more than 80 percent of the country’s exports. Bangladesh’s garment factories employ about 3.8 million people, most of whom are women.

These steady factory jobs have raised incomes and help lift millions out of abject poverty. Development and public health experts acknowledge that this employment helped Bangladesh dramatically improve child and maternal health. Indeed, it is one of only eight countries to have reduced deaths of children below age five by at least two-thirds since 1990 in accordance with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

A conversation I had with a Bangladeshi NGO worker a couple weeks after the Rana Plaza disaster summed up this paradox. We were in a car and as we drove across Dhaka past rickety-looking buildings in mid-construction, he commented that in Bangladesh — a densely populated, flood- and cyclone-prone country of 153 million — people’s lives were in constant danger. But in the next breath he soberly said if foreign clothing companies pulled out of Bangladesh, “we will die.”

The challenge then is how to improve workplace safety in Bangladesh meaningfully and sustainably with limited resources. This is an enormous, highly complicated task, but ambitious plans were put in place in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse.

In 2013 the Bangladeshi government signed the National Tripartite Plan of Action on fire and building safety for the garment industry after the United States suspended the country from a preferential trade program and the European Union threatened to do the same.

The government and the International Labour Organization (ILO) last October pledged $24.1 million for a program to improve working conditions in factories. And a relief fund of $6.8 million for victims of the Rana Plaza collapse and their families has been raised by clothing companies and other donors, such as BRAC USA, a branch of the Bangladeshi nongovernmental organization.

A worker wore protective gear at the Western Marine shipyard.
Din Muhammad Shibly
A worker wore protective gear at the Western Marine shipyard.

Last year global clothing brands and retailers formed coalitions to promote fire, labor and building safety, inspect factories, train workers, harness funds for factory upgrades and work with international and Bangladeshi trade unions. More than 150 companies from Europe, Asia and Australia, representing brands such as H&M, Tesco, Primark, Inditex (owner of Zara) and others, joined theBangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

Twenty-seven of the biggest United States brands, including Gap, Walmart and Target, formed a separate Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Together the Accord and the Alliance cover about 1,984 factories where companies place orders, but don’t include indirect subcontractors hired by their factories — another obstacle in this huge challenge.

The Accord is legally binding and companies give money based on how much they export to cover inspection and training programs at a maximum of $500,000 per year. Between February and September 2014, 38 teams of international fire, electrical and structural engineers, working with Bangladeshi engineers and technicians, are supposed to conduct inspections of 1,500 factories.

Under the Alliance, inspections have been conducted at more than half of the nearly 700 factories from which its members source, with a target to inspect all of them by July. Some factories have been recommended for temporary shutdown while they are upgraded; workers are still paid wages out of funds from the Alliance.

In addition, more than 400,000 factory managers and workers have been trained, with a target of training at least one million by July 2014. The Alliance is also setting up a worker helpline to 50 factories this month, with plans to expand to 150 factories by the end of 2014.

To do inspections and training effectively in Bangladesh is far, far harder than it sounds, given the woeful lack of government inspectors. They are also low-paid and lack transportation in traffic-choked Dhaka to reach the factories they are supposed to cover. (However, GIZ, the Germany aid agency, recently provided 20 motorbikes so new inspectors can get to factories.)

Standards and protocols taken for granted in rich countries simply don’t exist in developing ones. For example, previously government inspectors might count the smoke alarms in a factory — but not check to see if they actually worked.

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It remains to be seen whether safety standards can be enforced. Cost is only part of the issue. Even more important is changing mind-sets at all levels, and providing close, disciplined guidance on the ground. Greater awareness and acceptance of safety standards is essential for factory owners, middle managers on the floor and workers themselves. Although hazards abound, awareness of risk prevention and safety often does not exist.

In countries like Bangladesh and India, it is the norm that taxi drivers remove seat belts from passenger seats for comfort. At an airport in Chennai in south India I once watched in amazement as two workers carried a large sheet of glass as they walked across the hot tarmac with lungis (short sarongs), bare hands and bare feet. (My sense was that the lack of footwear was out of habit and comfort.) In India, the motorbike is a mode of transit for the masses. Indian motorbike drivers must by law wear helmets but their passengers — such as wives carrying babies — do not.

Safety training must be easy to understand and then monitored and scrupulously enforced. The Alliance is trying to address this by focusing on the quality of the training, not just the quantity, and its “train the trainer” approach has 40 master trainers from 12 independent inspection agencies with international standards. They train factory workers as “ambassadors” who are then supposed to pass along information to workers.

These two-day factory trainings are done in small groups of 30 and include graphics and illustrations for workers who have little education. In May, the Alliance will start “impact assessments” to see if the training was absorbed.

“The model is not scalable quickly, it takes time,” said Ian Spaulding, a senior adviser to the Alliance For Bangladesh Worker Safety. But it is more effective than previous trainings in Bangladesh that were rushed and done in groups as large as 500 or 1,000 workers. Those cursory trainings were often text-heavy and had neither discussion nor follow-up assessments.

Outside of factories, GIZ has set up 45 “women’s cafes” to reach out to female employees, get feedback about factory conditions and raise awareness about safety risks and labor rights. About 100,000 female workers regularly attend and 10,000 have been trained to conduct meetings.

“This is just at the beginning of changing something,” said Magnus Schmid, a program coordinator with GIZ in Dhaka. “This will take time. It’s still a process.”

Some Bangladeshi garment factories, especially those not covered by the Alliance or the Accord, do not have the money or resources to leapfrog to total compliancy. But simple improvements combined with strict enforcement can make an enormous difference. This could mean simply making sure that fire doors open outward and are unlocked, bundles of textiles are not stored next to electrical outlets, wires and lighting are encased to prevent sparks and aisles are kept free for evacuation. Building safety could also be improved by removing heavy water tanks and cellphone towers from factory roofs.

Rana Plaza became a symbol of what is wrong with Bangladesh’s garment industry. Now Bangladesh — supported by global clothing companies, international aid organizations and consumers who demand better — has the chance to get it right. “A lot of international pressure is very, very much important,” said Schmid. “Consumers are very important.”
Change can happen in Bangladesh. It has before. The country, for instance, has a surprisingly effective cyclone warning system that relies on village volunteers. This simple, grass-roots system has been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives during violent storms.

Safety standards can be upheld if they’re taken seriously enough, as they have been in Bangladesh’s oil and gas industry.

“How many times have you heard of a gas station that caught on fire?” one international safety inspector in Dhaka asked me. “Those standards are highly maintained – even in Bangladesh.”

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