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Bangladesh Factory Safety Fixes 'Far Behind Schedule': Investors

Garment factory collapse killed 1,134 workers. But some warn progress is too slow.

By David P. Ball 23 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

Badsha Mia, a garment quality control worker, remembers the ominous crack that appeared on a pillar in the Bangladeshi factory where he worked three years ago today.

The next day in the Rana Plaza garment factory, "all the workers were talking about the crack," Mia recounted to a delegation of Canadian labour representatives earlier this year, according to their report from the tour. "Management said, 'We have a shipment deadline, if you do not work, we cannot pay you.'"

Just after 10 a.m., the entire eight-storey building collapsed. By the time the dust settled 1,134 garment workers were dead, another 2,500 wounded.

On Thursday, a letter signed by 140 organizations hoping to leverage their investment portfolios to improve conditions warned that despite some progress made since the disaster in setting safety standards, inspecting facilities, and signing accords, efforts to actually fix unsafe Bangladeshi factories have been too slow.

"While expert inspections have identified thousands of issues, the vast majority of corrective action plans are far behind schedule," the letter states. "The lack of significant progress in addressing persistent systemic issues [will] continue to not only put workers at risk, but also pose material, financial and reputational risk for companies and their investors."

One of the letter's signatories was the Shareholder Association for Research & Education (SHARE), an organization that represents large institutional investors such as unions, pension plans and churches.

"What worries us is the pace of remediation," said Kevin Thomas, SHARE's director of shareholder engagement. "While there's been quite a bit of work to inspect buildings, it's still taking time to repair them, to fix wiring, to ensure fire doors are in place, and that workers have proper exits."

He said that there's much to be praised in many companies' "serious efforts" to change the labour practices of their suppliers in the country since the disaster.

"But if we truly care about workers' health and safety, and preventing another Rana Plaza, there's lots still to be done," he said.

'You need workers involved'

Last year, Canada imported $1.4 billion in clothing from the country, representing one-tenth of total clothing imports.

In February, a Canadian delegation of 11 union organizers and activists traveled to Bangladesh to meet survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse, as well as another fire at a nearby factory that killed more than 100 workers only five months before Rana.

One of the delegates on that 12-day tour was the Canadian Labour Congress' international program director, Jocelyne Dubois, who described meeting many survivors of both the Rana Plaza collapse and the deadly fire in the Tazreen Fashion factory.

"Their stories were incredibly touching," she said. "What the future holds for these people, and whether they'll be able to work and get proper compensation, is still a question mark."

The Canadian connection was clear to the delegation, particularly when delegates discovered Loblaws chain's Joe Fresh clothing labels still amongst the rubble nearly three years after the accident.

The Canadian firm has since signed onto the international Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a global 200-company agreement to improve labour rights, but is the only Canadian firm sourcing from Bangladesh to endorse it.

Delegates from February's trip also met local trade union activists who are trying to organize the sector, which employs four million people in more than 5,000 factories. Four out of five of the workers are women.

The Bangladeshi unionists told Canadian labour delegates of "management intimidation and threats and retaliation" against leaders of unionizing efforts, according to the delegation's report, including beatings, death threats, and most commonly, owners threatening to shutter their factories if workers attempted to bargain collectively.

Such claims were also documented in a February 2014 Human Rights Watch report.

"We heard stories of harassment, threats and intimidation," recalled Dubois. "To continue working for the workers' benefit, to organize them and make them aware of their rights -- these people are courageous to me."

According to another report released in January by three major global labour groups -- the International Trade Union Confederation, UNI Global Union and IndustriAll -- in Bangladesh, violations of international labour conventions "appear commonplace in an attempt to silence independent worker voices."

The report directly linked union representation with improved factory safety, and found that simply repairing unsafe buildings was only a short-term fix.

"The inability of many workers to organize and form unions without retaliation and to bargain collectively," the report concluded, "means that any gains in building and fire safety and other conditions of work will not be sustainable, leading to certain future tragedies."

Thomas, with SHARE, agrees that employees must be at the table when it comes to improving factory safety. Giving them a say in their workplaces' design and safety programs is essential because "they're there day-in and day-out," he said.

"An auditor can go through a factory once a year and it might look fine that day, but a day later boxes might be piled up in front of exits, he said. "You need workers involved if it's to be truly safe."  [Tyee]

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