On 13 January, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in partnership with the Christian Aid in Bangladesh organised a media briefing titled 'Fire Incidents in Workplaces and Workers Safety: Where are Corrective Actions?' In a conversation with TBS, Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Research Director at CPD, weighed in on CPD's evaluation of government-led initiatives to ensure industrial safety.
TBS: The focus of the study was on industrial safety in the non-RMG sector, which is a broad field. Why did the CPD make a distinction between the RMG and non-RMG industries?
Khondaker Golam Moazzem: The main issue arises from a wide range of accidents that recently occurred outside the garment sector. Recent data shows that industrial accidents, especially fire accidents, increased drastically in non-RMG industries and in the high rise buildings and storage warehouses associated with the said industries.
One of the major indicators is the Hashem Food Factory fire in which 52 workers died gruesomely. When investigated by authorities, security and safety lapses were noticed. And if these safety flaws are analysed, similar accidents can be seen in other sectors, which were once associated with garments.
Undertaking remedial measures in the non-RMG industry is difficult. While most garment manufacturers operate within the global supply chain, non-RMG sectors operate within the domestic supply chain. These domestic chains often disregard workplace safety and workers' rights.
Over the last eight years since the Rana Plaza incident, the ready-made garment sector has undergone continuous reforms. The improvement in workplace safety is visible to everyone as the number of accidents has declined.
The time has come for industrial institutions, service institutions and institutions outside the garment sector to take similar initiatives. This is the number one reason for the distinction.
Secondly, Bangladesh is developing economically, and rapid industrialisation is underway. New industrial institutions and other ancillary establishments are being set up in various sectors.
In light of that, the government formed a 24-member high-powered committee after the Hashem Food incident to identify problems and to suggest ways to solve them.
We have analysed six dailies over the last six months. During this timeframe, there have been 82 accidents. Of these, 52 were fire accidents. On average, one incident is reported every two days.
TBS: The CPD noted that progress in factory safety inspection was not satisfactory. What remedial measures can be taken? How can Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) transform to remedy the existing problems?
KGM: The main objective of the BIDA-led initiatives was to give suggestions based on factory inspections. I think this swift initiative was a good idea.
The initial phase aimed at completing the inspection work between October and December. During this time 5,000 factories were supposed to be inspected.
However, till mid-January, we saw only 875 factories visited. This is only 17 percent of the original target.
Very few factories have been inspected in Dhaka and Narayanganj, the two most important clusters. Considering manpower and other resources, inspection should have been finished in these two places very soon.
There are various types of inconsistencies. There are problems with the management of collected data as well as a shortage of logistics. However, these problems usually take place during the early stages of any new initiative, especially in developing countries such as Bangladesh.
The BIDA has failed to make decisions. They show weakness in leadership. Moreover, they do not have sufficient experience in this field.
It was very ambitious of them in the first place. The lack of coordination we have seen has been associated with poor leadership and inefficient management. As a result, the initiatives are moving at a very slow pace.
Furthermore, there were too many institutions involved. It [inspections] should have been carried out by a single dedicated institution similar to what we saw during the post-Rana Plaza period in the garments sector.
As the initiatives are consultation-based, we believe that lessons will be learned from here when the implementation phase begins. The priority should be completing their work in the fastest possible time.
And the data that is being obtained from inspection should be managed properly. A lot of data is being taken based on 80 criteria. Managing this large set of data is a matter of technical expertise.
I think the Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC) needs to be involved in the inspection and monitoring process of non-RMG factories with the necessary human resources and logistic facilities. In addition, the Department of Environment (DoE) should recruit more officers and provide the necessary training for proper inspection.
TBS: The study found that inspection activities were not gaining momentum as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had not been involved in the process. Do you think the absence of ILO is one of the more glaring deficits?
KGM: Indeed, it is. The ILO is a skilled international body that has been dealing with these kinds of issues for a long time. ILO has coordinated with the garments sector after Rana Plaza.
We think that the government should consult and coordinate with the ILO as early as possible. If the ILO is involved with the inspection, technical and logistical challenges and other weaknesses can be overcome and the speed of the process will be accelerated.
To understand the issue, first, we need to understand whether the government views the improvement of the work environment as a political game or whether ensuring worker safety is their main objective.
I think that the decision to not involve ILO was made because the government is not doing it [taking the initiative] solely for improving working conditions and workers' safety. Rather the government views it as a compromise with different pressure groups. If this is the case, I fear that the success of the project is in question.
Understandably, it is not quite possible to solve these issues in our country all at once. The solutions required to address them are time-consuming and technically demanding.
The implementation needs to be carried out through a process that is extremely technically efficient.
But most importantly the government needs to show political commitment rather than just trying to satisfy the pressure groups. So the involvement of the ILO will provide momentum. The whole process can be done in less time and with fewer errors.
TBS: Earlier at the CPD briefing, emphasis was given on the "citizens' initiative" to assess government programmes such as the one taken regarding safety at the factories. Can you elaborate on this point?
KGM: The last briefing is the first part of our initiative. We will continue to carry out a variety of activities in the future as part of this initiative. Our target is to ensure transparency and accountability. Then we will go for a sectoral review. We will also monitor government activities.
It would be wrong to call it solely a CPD initiative, rather it is a socially visible issue and many others are working here as well. We also want to contribute in our own way.
We have identified a few sectors where safety risks are high. We have focused on the industries related to leather products, agro-processing, plastic materials and chemical substances. These industries are labour intensive and security risks are also higher.
When a major initiative is announced by the government, it often has different motives. As good as the intentions may be, many times the efficacy of the initiatives are questioned because they are not implemented properly.
After the Rana Plaza incident, we have coordinated with people with technical knowledge. As a part of that, we have regularly reviewed government activities.
Moreover, the reports of these reviews are distributed to the public and stakeholders through the media. We have also observed a growing sense of awareness among the public. Moreover, the authorities are a bit more susceptible to our recommendations.