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Bangladeshi RMG sector demands proper workplace safety

Published : Saturday, 5 May, 2018 at 12:00 AM  Count : 850
Sabbir Ahmed Galib

During the last three decades' workplace safety has emerged as an area of major concern for employers as well as employees. For effective organisational functioning and to achieve the objectives of the organisation, safety needs to be managed by evolving appropriate safety systems and methods. To introduce effective safety culture, setting control standards and measurements of safety performance are vital for minimising accidents and to sustain better productivity. In the years ahead, personnel engaged in technical and managerial functions need to agreement priority to various dimensions of safety management, especially monitoring safety and health, development of accident prevention techniques, safety education and participation of employees in safety practices. 

It is estimated that every year over 1.2 million workers are killed due to work-related accidents and diseases and 250 million occupational accidents and 160 million work-related diseases are occurring due to unsafe work. There are 5.76 crore workers in Bangladesh as per the latest official statistics. According to Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) information, only 20 per cent of the total workforce enjoys privileges stipulated in the law. Even the rights of the workers covered by the law are not fully implemented. 

The readymade garment industry of Bangladesh has very significant contributions to the country's economic development in terms of foreign earnings, employment creation, women empowerment and bringing social change. The contribution of Bangladesh's ready-made garment industry in the world apparel sector is very significant; currently it has become the 2nd largest exporters of garment products in the world. More than 4 million workers invest their labours in the sector.

As mentioned earlier, a safe workplace is considered as professional rights for the workers. Since people spend significant portions of their days in workplaces, the nature and scope of safety and security remains a major issue for discussion and debate. The question of a worker's safety is not only based on considering productivity but also on the ability of employees to sustain themselves and earn for his/her family. Whereas, employment and income help us survive, unemployment on the other hand brings significant negative consequences for the family.

Often cited as characteristics of the many "sweatshops" which operate in developing countries are: poor wages; long working hours; risky working environments with few safeguard mechanisms; unhygienic working environments with no or little air flow, no daylight, high temperatures, excessive noise, and poor indoor air quality and both verbal and physical abuse. These sweatshop characteristics can result in death or mild, moderate and severe injuries, long or short-term diseases which can have significant economic consequences for the family and society.

ILO estimates death of 2.3 million workers because of occupational accidents and work-related diseases. 337 million occupational accidents and 160 million occupational diseases occur each year globally. A study conducted in Bangladesh by Bangladesh Occupational Safety Health and Environment  at 2015 revealed that 79.52 per cent of the injured (occupational injuries) workers were in the 40-59 age group; and 73.26 per cent of accidents caused injury to hands, feet, torso, arms and eyes resulting in different forms of disability.

Notably two deadliest incidents in industrial history of Bangladesh are -- fire broke out at Tazreen Fashions, Nischintapur, Ashulia, Dhaka which impacted at least 117 people were confirmed dead in the fire, and over 200 were injured, and another one is Rana plaza building collapse on 24 April 2013.The search for the dead ended on 13 May 2013 with a death toll of 1,129. Approximately 2,500 injured people were rescued from the building alive. It is considered the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, as well as the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history.

The immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (Accord) is working to strengthen workplace safety as well as rights to refuse the unsafe works.  Since 2013, the Accord has identified 131,953 high-risk fire, structural and electrical safety violations in its current group of 1,621 factories and corrected and verified 97,235 of these findings an average of 60 violations corrected per factory. Some 795 factories have an initial findings remediation rate of 90 per cent or higher. Some 961 factories have an initial findings remediation rate of 85 per cent or higher (Research Report, University of Penn state, 2018).

Research report of Penn State University also stated that the Accord has provided in-depth health and safety training to personnel in 846 factories and has investigated and resolved 183 worker complaints. While the Accord mandate does not cover freedom of association general right, the Accord does have authority to address the issue when managers retaliate against unions for raising building safety issues and when managers use violence to thwart worker organizing.

The Accord has investigated and successfully remedied a number of important freedom of association cases, including securing the reinstatement of illegally fired workers.
This is the remarkable achievement of Bangladesh Accord that reached more than 1.4 million garment workers as disseminating regarding most common factory safety hazards and their right to refuse unsafe work and resolved more than 195 safety complaints so far from workers and their representatives.

The good practices of Accord through Safety Committee members and management such as walk-through by conducting factory inspections to identify safety hazards; respond to employee complaints and suggestions about safety and health by establishing safety complaints box and safety bulletin board; review company accident reports to learn how such accidents can be prevented; communicate about safety and health issues to workers; meet regularly, at least once every three months. If these measures are taken properly, an outstanding effect to ensure better and sustainable workplace will be visible.

For instance, safety goes beyond productivity and workers' rights because, given the history of the Bangladesh RMG sector, the very reputation of the country is on the line.  If safety failure in one factory where there is loss of life will have a ripple effect across the entire industry and, by consequence, the country.  It is remarkably vital to take safety seriously, not simply a matter of production efficiency or workers' rights, but a patriotic duty to protect the reputation of Bangladesh. Undoubtedly there is no alternative option instead of workplace safety to get the sustainability, equity and productivity.

The writer is studying at the University of Dhaka

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