Factories tend to comply with the safety standards only when there are pressures from abroad and go slow when supervision weakens.
This is how Bangladesh's industry responds to global workplace standard requirements, experts said discussing a study report on industrial safety at a webinar on Sunday.
Most factories, mainly those catering to the local market, are not complying with the safety standards due to a lack of supervision, they pointed out.
Referring to the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, they said apparel makers had remodelled their factories to conform to the global standards of fire, electrical and structural safety when they came under immense pressure from the buyers' forums after the biggest industrial disaster.
After the tenure of the forums – Accord and Alliance – expired, the number of incidents is on the rise again, they said.
Experts and entrepreneurs acknowledged that non-exporting garment and other industries had stayed out of supervision, a result of which was the recent fire at the Shezan Juice factory in Narayanganj.
At the discussion organised by the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), representatives of garment owners, workers, development partners and the International Labour Organisation spoke of malpractices that had continued overlooking workers' safety and how to overcome them.
Syed Manzur Elahi, a member of the CPD Board of Trustees and former advisor to the Caretaker government, moderated the dialogue.
Syed Manzur Elahi said the garment industry gave attention to safety issues because there was pressure from foreign buyers. "It should not be that we will not improve safety standards and compliance unless there is international pressure."
Professor Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the CPD, emphasized the need for safety measures for workers in other export-oriented and domestic industries, similar to the RMG sector.
President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association Faruque Hassan said the apparel industry had achieved unprecedented improvement under Accord and Alliance supervision.
Now local initiative RMG Sustainable Council is looking after the safety issue.
Faruque also said transparency and accountability would have to be ensured in industrial safety measures.
Mohammad Hatem, first vice-president, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said the fire at the Shezan factory had brought forth the need to bring industries other than the RMG under safety coverage.
Executive Director of the CPD Fahmida Khatun said there had been commendable progress in terms of safety in the garment industry under the watch of Accord and Alliance, but a few recent incidents raised questions about "our ability to retain the achievements".
Md. Nasir Uddin Ahmed, inspector general of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, said 90 lakh factories, shops and institutions had been registered, but there were nearly 4.5 lakh more enterprises not registered.
He pointed out the manpower shortage of his department for its inability to inspect all the factories and other commercial entities.
Jenefa Jabbar, director of Human Rights and Legal Aid Services at Brac, said labour safety issues would still be disregarded unless there was concerted pressure.
labour leader Z. M. Kamrul Anam said repeated reminders to the government for a meeting with Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC) and RMG Sustainability Council had gone in vain.
Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, said Accord and Alliance had come due to the lack of capacity of the government offices for monitoring safety issues. But the government offices and RMG associations maintained a distance from both the bodies.
Labour leader Babul Akter said the law obliged a factory owner to ensure safety at his workplace.
Presenting a research paper, Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director, CPD, said nearly 22.5% of 4,000 garment factories were still out of any kind of inspections.
Workers' safety in the RMG sector had improved because of Accord and Alliance, but Remediation Coordination Cell formed by the government could not take the work forward, as expected, Moazzem said.
He also pointed out the weaknesses of the RMG Sustainable Council.
Between May 2018 and April 2021, 46 accidents took place in the garment sector, according to newspaper reports, which, Moazzem said, was an indication of a rise in industrial accidents.
Moazzem said the number of incidences increased by 100% in FY2020, compared to that in FY2019 and then the figure declined by 20% in FY2021 (up to April 2021). Fire and electrical (short-circuit) problems were the main reasons (35% of total incidences) behind the accidents.
The post-Accord-Alliance period showed a deviation from the safety standards set by Accord and Alliance, Moazzem said.
A lack of maintenance and regular monitoring are the reasons behind industrial accidents in the RMG factories, he added.
Moazzem stressed the need for strengthening coordination between organisations responsible for ensuring workplace safety, such as the DIFE. He also proposed formulating a government coordination council to this end.