Rana Plaza tragedy, Bangladesh: Safety revisited after one year

The sandwich collapse of Rana Plaza garment factory complex in the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh on 24 April 2013, marks its one year anniversary with commemoration and protest for compensation and safer working condition for the workers. The deadliest industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh claimed 1,138 lives and yet more than 2,000 were left seriously injured or disabled.

After one year, people have disappointments since the culprits have not been punished and victims have not been compensated enough. It is claimed but hard to imagine that many people are still missing inside the rubble. Besides initial compensations from the government and few social organizations, legal compensation packages are yet to be made official. International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates some $40 million needed to compensate the families and disabled garment workers. The Bangladesh government together with the ILO have established a relief fund for the same.

Although many would call this accident a wakeup call, some critics would like to differ. These kind of accidents had happened in Bangladesh in the past but probably they were not destructive and loud enough to register as a wakeup call for the government or the concerned authorities. Most importantly, the disaster could have been predicted and prevented if they had adequate safety measures in place.

Better late than never, the Rana Plaza debacle brought about massive movements for similar industries to sign up for the Bangladesh fire and building safety accord. Although government safety inspections are already underway, the initial reports are not looking satisfactory. There are lots of fire and building safety issues which still need to be addressed to comply with the accord. Government should be able to set up strong measures to enforce new regulations and remediation.

Meanwhile, there are evidence of positive change in safety culture as both management and workers are taking safety seriously and raising concerns over building safety and fire safety issues. As the safety culture needs preservation, fostering and encouragement from all the sectors including the Bangladesh government, garment industries, workers on the floor, top foreign retailers as well as the consumers on the other side of the globe, this might be a long journey before any significant change will be noticed on the front of safety culture.

Currently, there are about 30 foreign retail brands which are supplied by more than 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh. It is sad to see that only half of the retailer brands have come forward to compensate the family and the injured workers. The other half probably want cheap clothes at the expense of safe working condition and wellbeing of the workers in Bangladesh. 

This could be a good example of 21st century slavery where labors in developing countries are enslaved by affluent business society. The end consumers need to wake up and see the tragedy of the labor behind the label and boycott those brands which are so indifferent and irresponsible towards their own workers.

On one hand Bangladesh has this immense need to address its existing safety issues such as fire and building safety accord while on the other it has the challenges to restore confidence of the retailers. Although the structural flaws of the buildings and the proactive safety measures will definitely take some time to be implemented, Bangladesh cannot afford to lose its retailers by not meeting these basic safety requirements just now.

The country needs to move fast if it wants to restore the business in this world where business ethics, brand identities and consumer awareness are rapidly becoming the competitive grounds for the growth of any organization. Further delaying and not meeting the safety standards might signal the international market to diversify to other places such as Nepal, Myanmar etc. We hope that the garments made in Bangladesh will present a symbol of standards and not of workers’ exploitation.

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Government dispute with the Sherpas

Deepest condolence to the friends and families who lost their loved ones in the tragic avalanche on Mount Everest this April, 2014. It is consoling to know though, few of the initial compensation demands have been met by the government. The foresight of the government and the relevant management bodies would have made this aftermath transition a lot easier as far as the insurance agreements and the provision of adequate compensation amounts are concerned. Although the probability of these kind of incidents happening in the near future can be predicted low, the consequences could be life threatening or fatal as we can see.

The government of Nepal should strategically plan to spend a good chunk of revenue generated from the Mount Everest to the safety, well being, education and development of the entire chain of communities supporting the mission in this region. Along with providing with proactive safety measures, the government should also equip the Sherpa guides with adequate insurance compensation package, pension, relief funds etc., considering the high level of risks involved in the job. The Mt. Everest expedition also demands a robust emergency preparedness and response planning to prepare for such disasters in the future.

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Workers’ Safety Management: In developing vs developed nations

In a profit making organization, around the globe, it is a prevalent norm that workers’ safety gets lower priority than most of other functionalities within it. In a country like Nepal this seems even more evident due to the lack of adequate government policies, laws, regulations, management, culture and eventually conscience of the employees to work safely.

The very mention of the word conscience could make many feel uncomfortable. I wonder what does it do to the government bodies or corporate management committees, if there is a soul behind them?

Strategies are usually top-down approach and they work greatly when basic infrastructures such as government policies, expert guidelines, implementing bodies, adequate rules, regulations, etc. are already in place. Providing such strategic framework makes the process of Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) implementation easier.

Developing nations lack adequate laws as well as awareness to shape the ground rules. In the mean time workers struggle for the basic rights, wages, working hours etc. In developing countries, the industries mostly neglect the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and try to make profit at the cost of environment and safety of workers.

Many developed nations on the other hand have already addressed most of the perquisites and are making great progress in this direction. Their OHS visions are more or less aligned with the overall CSR and business strategy. Thanks to their governments, they also have several OHS policies to guide them appropriately. Plenty of tools and measures for OHS program implementation, management and evaluation are available in the market as well as in the government affiliated bodies. 

Since no one can deny the fact that Occupational Health & Safety is a mammoth issue which involves many layers and offshoots around it, there can not be a one stop solution. Rather there must be a two-way traffic. With a top-down approach the government must come up with strong OHS policies, enforcement rules and regulating bodies whereas occupational safety awareness should be spread at the grass-roots level to help businesses build a lean, green and sustainable safety culture within their factories and organizations.

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