Worker Safety in Bangladesh
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U-LABUNIVERSITY OF LIBERAL ARTSBANCLADESH
UNIVERSITY OF LIBERAL ARTS BANGLADESH
Worker Safety in Bangladesh: Looking Beyond GarmentsBy Afsana Tazreen and Daniel M. Sabet
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Purpose of the reportThe recent fire at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory has brought the perennial challenge of worker safetyinto the spotlight once again. Given the constant pressure to lower costs and the dearth of meaningfulgovernment oversight, businesses are continually tempted to reduce costs at the price of worker safety.Worker deaths are not new in Bangladesh, and while they have led to recriminations and some importantchanges, fires and other tragic accidents continue. The question today is whether the scope of the Tazreentragedy was significant enough to lead to more meaningful changes in the garment sector and the broadereconomy. This report explores the issue of worker safety in the garment industry in the wake of the Tazreenfire, but it also seeks to expand the discussion, highlighting worker safety concerns in the ship breaking,leather; and construction industries.
The blaze that killed over 100 workersOn the night of 24 November2OL2, a fire broke out in Tazreen Fashions, an eight-storygarmentfactory in theAshulia district on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka. Of the estimated 1,150 people working that night to fillorders for various international brands, LL3 were killed and another 200 wounded. The fire reportedlyoriginated from an electrical malfunction on the ground floor, where bales of yarn and fabric were improperlystored. While many workers managed to escape to an adjacent building, others were burned or suffocated todeath. On the worst affected third floor sewing unit, sixty-nine bodies were recovered.Worker safety in the RMG lndustryFires have been a persistent problem in the country's readymade garment (RMG) industry for over a decade.Bangladesh has over 4,500 RMG factories, which employ more than four million workers and account forUSS19 billion in exports.l The coun-try's comparative advantage is low costs - the minimum wage for workersis a mere Tk3,000 (S37) per month.2 As keeping costs low has been one of the keys to the sector's success inBangladesh, there are strong disincentives to make necessary investments in worker safety. Whileimprovements have been made over the years, the safety record of the Bangladesh RMG industry remainspoor' There is some disagreement about the number of worker deaths in the industry. According to theBangladesh lnstitute of Labour Studies, 43L workers died in L4 major fire incidents between j.990 and ZOI2.3However, according'to Bangladesh Fire Department,4L4 garment workers were killed in 213 factory firesbetween 2006 and 2009 alone.a
Out of complianceAccording to Section 62 of the 2006 Bangladesh Labour Law, the following standards are required for all RMG factories: so At least one alternative exit with a stair connecting all the floors of the factory building.o No exit can be locked or fastened during working hours.o An effective and clearly audible means to warn of fires.o Cleared passages providing access to each escape route.o A fire drill at least once a year in each factory where more than fifty workers are employed.
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Several of these and other requirements were violated at Tazreen Fashions:o The fire originated in the warehouse, which was improperly located on the ground floor beside the
generators. lf the fabric had been stored in an enclosed, fireproof room, as required by law, the fire couldhave been contained. lnstead it not only spread but blocked the ground floor exit.
o The factory did not have any emergency fire exits that would have allowed workers to circumvent theground floor fire.6
o The factory failed to annually renew its fire certificate.o The factory lacked a sprinkler system or an outdoor fire escape.o Despite only having permission for a three-story building, the owners had added five extra floors to the
building illegally.o Some fire extinguishers did not functioh, and, despite fire drills, workers were not properly trained in fire
extinguisher use or fire evacuation procedures.T
Perhaps more disturbing than these failings, was the response of the supervisors on the day of the fire. Thesupervisors dismissed the fire alarm and told the workers to continue working. The fire took around 30minutes to spread, while it should have taken only five to seven minutes for the workers to evacuate thefactory. ln addition to demonstrating Tazreen's negligence, such extreme violations raise serious questionsabout Bangladesh's fire, building, and occupational health and safety regulators.Aftermath: The "Post Tazreen Scenario"As a consequence of the fire, the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the lnternational LabourOrganization convened a tripartite meeting of government, employers, and workers on fire safety in theworkplace on 1-5 January 2013.8 Subsequently, the ministry formally adopted anaction plan on March24outlining needed legislative and policy challenges.e
While these represent very positive steps, there are reasons to be concerned. This would not be the first timethat promises to improve worker safety have fallen short. A 2001 fire that killed 24 people was expected tohave a similar turning point. At that time, the High Court directed the government to set up a committee tooversee the safety of garment workers, a directive which was never implemented.l0 Despite all the attentiongarnered by the Tazreen blaze, just two months into the incident, seven workers died in another factory fireat Smart Garment Ltd. The emergency exit of the building was locked, and those who died were trampledwhile trying to rush down the only stairway. Since the Tazreen fire, another 28 factory fires have beenreported, injuring at least 59L workers.11Shifting the focus to other industries:lf safety measures are inadequate in the RMG industry, one cannot help but wonder about the situation inindustries that do not garner the international spotlight like the RMG sector. According to the Safety andRights Society (SRS), which monitors news accounts of worker deaths, 388 workers were killed inoccupational accidents in 2011 and 490 in 2012. While the Bangladesh lnstitute of Labour Studies (BILS)estimates the numbgr to be far lower, the SRS estimation is probably fairly conservative as not all such deathsare reported in the media. ln fact, the ILO contends that 11,000 workers die each year in work-relatedaccidents in Bangladesh.12 ln the section that follows, weconsider three prominent industries-- ship breaking,leather and construction-- with a high rate of occupational injuries and deaths.The ship breaking industryEach year hundreds of decommissioned ships are brought to the beaches of the Bay of Bengal, where shipbreakers, including many minors,tt use blowtorches and sledge hammers to tear the great ships apart formonthly salaries that range from Tk3,000 to 5,000 (US$37-62).14 Most of the defunct ships contain a varietyof hazardous materials, including asbestos, PCBs, ozone depleting substances, lead, heavy metals, liquidwastes, and acidic wastes, all of which pose a major threat to the environment and worker health andsafety.ls
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ln addition to chemical exposure, workers operate without protective gear and use unsafe and untestedcranes, lifting machinery, and ropes and chains recovered from the very ships being dismantled.16 During theyears 2009-20LL, 3L laborers were reportedly killed in accidents, and the actual number may be muchhigher.17 The main causes of accidents include falling steel beams and plates, gas flames and explosions,suffocation and inhalation of poisonous gases. In a recent survey of 2'J,6 workers, respondents reported thatsevere cuts and broken bones were common and that burns and even loss of limbs occurred.ls
Although the ILO issued guidelines in 2004 for ship breaking in Asian countries, and although Bangladeshiworkers are supposed to be protected under the 2006 Labour Law Act, enforcement and compliance arealmost nonexistent.tt ln 2009, the Supreme Court placed a ban on all ship breaking due to the hazardousmaterials onboard. The industry seemed likely to collapse until the government loosened regulations and theSupreme Court placed a stay on its decision. A final judgment is still pending, but the industry has to datefailed to take steps to improve worker safety.
The leather industry:Over the last ten years, leather exports have grown by an average of Tk 328 crore (USS41- million) per year.'oUnfortunately, according to a Human Rights Watch study, ninety percent of workers employed in the 150tanneries located in the Hazaribagh section of Dhaka face occupational hazards ranging from exposure totanning chemicals to potential accidents causing limb amputations.2l Workers soak raw hides in toxicchemicals such as chromium, sulphur and manganese, cut the hides with razor blades and handle corrosivesubstances with bare hands in stuffy, dark rooms. During the process they rarely wear any protectiveclothing, like boots, gloves, or masks.
The Bangladesh Government has consistently failed to enforce labor or environmental laws in Hazaribagh, and ithas failed to act on High Court orders to clean up the tanneries and move them out of Dhaka to a safer locationwhere the industry's effluent can be properly treated. ln theory, worker safety issues should also be improved in anew location; however, this is far from guaranteed. While international buyers (under pressure from consumers)have played a role in promoting worker safety in the RMG industry and the leather goods manufacturing industry,that pressure has not been extended further down the supply chain