Recent documentaries exposed unacceptable work conditions in Bangladeshi Factories, but did they show the full picture?
Ahead of the Rana Plaza disaster anniversary and on the back of the London Fashion Week, several British news organisations recounted in the past few weeks some unacceptable labour conditions in few factories in Bangladesh. Child labour, abuse of female workers, safety breaches and indifference towards basic legal requirements, underlined the unacceptable work practices employed by unscrupulous factory owners.
ITV television channel aired on 6th of February the programme ‘Exposure: Fashion Factories Undercover’, which was followed shortly by the Sunday Times article ‘Blocked stairs, poor exits: the unsafe fashion factories’. Plenty of articles published following these exposures have questioned the Bangladeshi garment industry’s real willingness to change. However, they have overlooked and largely ignored one major fact: the huge amount of effort done by many factories to improve their working standards.
The ITV documentary showed appalling footage of a girl as young as 14 years old being verbally and physically abused in a garment factory while being forced to work for 11 or more hours. This same factory that produces for giant UK retailers is seen responsible for padlocked fire emergency exits. Moreover, there was footage of managers tutoring the workers on how to answer the factory inspectors who were expected later that day. Similar to this documentary was the article published in The Sunday Times on 16 February 2014 pointing towards blocked stairs and exits in an unapproved factory that produced for international fashion labels. The accused and named brands have responded by statements suggesting that either they were not informed and never approved the sub-contracting practice. Others said that they have terminated their contract with suppliers and factories who breached their business terms.
It is known fact that brands and retailers holds the sourcing and buying power, and therefore fulfil a pivotal role in ensuring that factories fall into line. However, showing Bangladesh in poor light by highlighting the example of few bad factories, may lead to the opposite reaction – influencing these brands to shift their sourcing destination elsewhere. This would hinder the significant effort which is underway to raise factory standards. While there are factories as shown in both the ITV documentary and The Sunday Times article that have not taken social and safety compliance seriously, it is fair to say that many other factories have done well. These examples must be presented as well.
GreenGrade’s Managing director, Dr Sharon Sadeh said ‘The recent media exposures do not portray a complete and fair picture of the Bangladeshi garment sector. A lot of work has been done and taken on board by many factories and ignoring their efforts will not encourage the industry to raise its standards. Much progress is likely to be achieved through the work of two particular industry initiatives: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Factories are actively allocating funds for infrastructure improvements, staff training and purchase of safety equipment at unprecedented scale – this is largely at the behest of international brands, mainly from the UK and US ’.
Since the disaster of Rana Plaza and the tragic fire accident of Tazreen, Bangladesh ready-made garment (RMG) sector has been under much scrutiny on labour rights and safety issues. International agreements and initiatives by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Bangladesh Accord, Alliance and other programmes have been promptly set up. A positive outcome will only be possible through commitment to change by all parties. GreenGrade hopes that the many stakeholders involved in Bangladesh will help its garment sector to raise standards and thrive as a sourcing destination.