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Apparel sector suffers from poor standard of compliance – Khondaker G Moazzem and Kishore K Basak

Published in The Financial Express on Tuesday, 18 August 2015.

Apparel sector suffers from poor standard of compliance

Khondaker G Moazzem and Kishore K Basak in the first of a two-part article focusing on compliance standard in the apparel sector

Despite significant economic upgrading in the apparel value chain, social upgrading remains weak in most of the supplying countries. As one of the major sources of global apparels, Bangladesh’s apparel sector is no exception. Usually, different social issues in the value chain including workers’ wages, workplace safety and security and worker’s rights are supposed to be handled by the ‘judicial’ system operated by local legislative bodies of the supplying countries. Given the weak institutional structure in the supplying countries, ‘judicial’ governance faces serious constraints in maintaining expected level of compliance. In this context, the ‘external’ governance of the value chain is considered to be a possible avenue to facilitate social compliance where buyers would play the lead role.

Margin received by market agents in the value chain is supposed to be ‘neutral’ with regards to compliance at the manufacturing units of supplying countries since local legislative bodies usually monitor and ensure that standard. Necessary costs for maintaining compliances are supposed to be built-in the margin of the suppliers and therefore distribution of margin both at the suppliers’ and buyers’ end is likely to have limited implications on maintaining compliance.

In contrast, a consistent rise in sourcing of apparels from major supplying countries despite having poor compliance records indicate that compliance standards at the factory level has been compromised which may directly and indirectly benefit major players in the supply chain. In a state of fierce competition, low cost for compliance is practiced by market players as a strategic tool in order to maintain competitiveness and thereby ensuring higher profit.

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF COMPLIANCE: The physical and social compliances maintained at industrial entities in Bangladesh are supposed to be guided by specific national rules and regulations. These rules and regulations include Fire Prevention and Fire Fighting Law 2003, Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013), and The Fatal Accidents Act 1855. Bangladesh National Building Code 2006 provides guidelines for establishment of buildings for industrial purpose. The provisions in various regulations that are related to the occupational safety of workers at the garments factories are mentioned below under different aspects.

ESTABLISHMENT OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDING: According to the Fire Prevention and Fire Fighting Law 2003 (sub-clause 1 of clause 8) approval or revision of the design of commercial buildings will not be given unless the Director General (DG) certifies the issues of fire prevention and fire-fighting of the respective buildings. The Law also keeps provision for the DG to inspect multi-storied or commercial buildings and in case of requirement give suggestions on the above mentioned issues.  In this case, the owner of the building is bound to adopt measures as per the suggestions of the DG according to the requirement of public safety. If no measures are undertaken for public safety, the DG may announce the building to be unsuitable for use.

According to the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013) if it appears to the inspector that any building or part of a building or any part of the ways, machinery or plant in an establishment is dangerous to human life or safety, he may write to the employer about specific measures to be adopted. The inspector may also prohibit the use of a building or part of a building until proper repair is done. The law also specifies the requirements for the construction of floors, stairs and means of access in every establishment necessary to ensure safety. Workers should be provided with safe means of access to every place at which any person is, at any time, required to work; and all floors, pathways and stairways should be kept clean and clear of obstructions.

Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) delineates the requirements for the establishment of industrial buildings under various occupancy groups that are based on the handling of raw and finished products, and operations conducted in the industry, etc.

PRECAUTION AGAINST FIRE: The Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013) delineates measures that should be adopted by any establishment in case of prevention against fire. The law stipulates that every establishment should provide at least one alternative connecting stairway with each floor and such means of escape in case of fire and fire-fighting apparatus. The law also states that if it appears to the inspector that any establishment is not providing with the means of escape as prescribed then the inspector may provide suggestion to the employer on specific measures before a date specified in the order. In case of occurrence of fire in any establishment, it has been recommended that exit doors from any room shall not be locked. This is to enable easy and immediate exit by workers in case of any emergency situation.  To make the exit clearer to the people inside the premises on fire, the exit should be distinctively marked in Bangla and in red letters of adequate size. Every window, door or any other exit avenue of the establishment should be usable to the workers for exit in case of any emergency with a free passage-way giving access to each means of escape.

Chapter 3 in BNBC outlines the means of escape in an emergency situation. It states that the means of escape should be continuous and unobstructed from any point of the building to a street, roof of another building or a designated area of refugee. BNBC stipulates general requirements for various means of escape for workers in case of an emergency. The code also includes provisions for fire protecting through designing and managing in-built facilities for a building and its premises. The various provisions for fire under BNBC include fire protection plumbing, design of smoke and fire venting system etc.

MANAGEMENT OF COMBUSTIBLE ITEMS: The Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013) includes that effective measures should be taken to ensure that all the workers are familiar with the means of escape in case of fire in every establishment where more than ten workers are ordinarily employed. This will be applicable to establishment using or storing explosive or highly inflammable materials.  The law also states that a mock fire-fighting should be arranged at least once in a year in factories where fifty or more workers and employees are employed and the employer shall maintain a book of records in this regards.

The BNBC stipulates that no apparatus generating flames shall be permitted to be used or stored in a building or room using or storing volatile flammable liquid. The regulation requires boiler rooms and areas containing heating plants to be segregated from the rest of the occupancy. BNBC requires adequate preventive measures against hazards associated with electricity and gas. Fire Prevention and Fire Fighting Law 2003 lays out penalties for a person keeping, storing or processing of inflammable materials. The government in certain cases may also seize such materials.

MANAGING MACHINERY AND EQUIPMENT: Clause 71 of Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013) states that if any part of the plant or machinery used in manufacturing process is operated at a pressure above atmospheric pressure, appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that the safe working pressure of such part is not exceeded. The act also includes measures relating to the use of cranes and other lifting machinery, revolving machinery, hoists and lifts and casing of new machinery, etc.

PROVISIONS FOR HEALTH AND SAFETY: The various national regulations include provisions for health safety of workers. Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013) states that certain materials are to be made available in any manufacturing process for the protection of persons employed if the process involves risk of injury.

The law also includes that if it appears to the inspector that any building or part of a building or machinery or plant in an establishment, is dangerous to human life or safety, the employer shall be ordered to furnish documents to determine the safety of such building and machinery or plant.

Other provisions in the law include cautioning workers regarding dangerous fumes, specifying and declaring hazardous operations, prohibiting or restricting the employment of women, adolescents or children in such operations and providing the periodical medical examination of persons employed in the operation etc.

The law also assigns power to the workers if they were to find that any machinery or building used by them is in a dangerous condition that it is likely to cause physical injury at any time. In this case the worker shall inform the employer of it in writing immediately and if the employer fails to take appropriate action within three days of receiving the information, he or she is liable to compensate the worker in case of an injury resulting from negligence.

OTHERS: Other issues that have been addressed in the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013) include ensuring occupational safety of workers including provisions for shelter, their canteen facilities, room for children, recreational, educational and medical care facilities etc. There are also provisions related to the power of inspector to enter industrial premises and collect sample of any substance used that is likely to cause injury to the health of workers in the establishment. In addition to various rules and regulations for maintaining the appropriate working condition, the apparel sector of Bangladesh is also subject to conditions imposed by international buyers.

Various provisions related to workers’ safety and security under different laws/acts could legally ensure occupational health and safety of the workers at the workplace. However, the institutional mechanism for monitoring and inspection of compliance particularly under the Ministry of Labour, RAJUK and Ministry of Home have struggled to ensure proper enforcement of various provisions of national rules due to constraints of capacity and weak governance.

As a result, the apparel sector suffers from poor standard of compliance at different levels. The number of tragic incidents at the workplace and death of workers particularly the collapse of the Rana Plaza indicated that compliance-related rules are not properly followed by firms. [The article is prepared based on the CPD’s latest study titled ‘Margin and Its Relation with Firm Level Compliance: Illustration on Bangladesh Apparel Value Chain.’ The study has been carried out in collaboration with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Dhaka.]

Dr Khondaker G Moazzem is Additional Research Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Kishore K Basak is a Senior Research Associate at CPD. 

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