Four years ago, Rana Plaza—an eight-story building in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka that housed several factories producing clothing for brands such as the Children’s Place, J.C. Penney, and Walmart—came crashing down, killing approximately 1,130 people and injuring thousands more. In the wake of the disaster, companies, trade unions, and workers’-rights groups agreed to make the buildings safer and improve conditions for employees within five years; in many factories, this meant things like adding sprinkler systems or emergency exits. But now, with only one year left, there’s still much to be done.
The Rana Plaza collapse prompted two initiatives to improve conditions at the Bangladeshi factories that do business with several Western brands; there are thousands of such factories in the country, whose garment industry does about $28 billion in business each year. Those two 2013 agreements, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, gave factories until the summer of 2018 to improve conditions. Any factory that doesn’t meet the agreements’ standards would risk losing its relationship with the Western brands that have pledged to abide by the Accord and Alliance. In practice, that also likely means these factories will just be moved to a third compliance initiative—a less-rigorous one run by the Bangladeshi government.
As the five-year agreements’ end date approaches, many factories are still far from adhering to the safety measures outlined. “It’s very unlikely that all of the Accord and Alliance factories would be fully remediated by that deadline,” says Jennifer Bair, a sociologist who studies globalization at the University of Virginia. A lot of the work left to be done is significant and expensive, and while the scope of danger can vary widely from factory to factory, virtually every exporting factory in the country was found to need some sort of repair.
Dhaka in particular, which is home to many of the country’s factories, has struggled with safety because of how developed it is. “One of the things that makes Bangladesh so hazardous but unique is that you have a lot of the industry, particularly the older factories, that are located in a really densely populated urban district of Dhaka in high buildings, as opposed to low, purpose-built buildings of the sort that you might see in a lot of other countries’ export sectors,” says Bair.
Researchers working on factory and worker-safety issues in Bangladesh can generally agree on a few points: Though structural fixes have sped up, the odds that factories are fully fixed in a year are slim. They also agree that even after factories’ structural problems are fixed, that won’t solve all the threats to safety that factory workers face. But how to deal with those issues, who should be responsible, and just how much work remains are areas where some disagree.
In December of 2015, researchers from New York University’s Stern School of Business painted a fairly damning portrait of the efforts to improve garment factories in Bangladesh, which I reported on. Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, the authors of the study, found that of the 3,425 inspections that took place in Bangladesh in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, only eight factories have fixed enough of their violations to pass a final inspection, despite the fact that brands, nonprofits, and other organizations have poured more than $280 million into safety-improvement efforts. Labowitz and Baumann-Pauly estimated that the two 2013 safety initiatives still left out more than half of the country’s 5.1 million garment-factory workers.
The assertions were alarming and controversial. Many voiced their doubts about their accuracy. Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium has been a vocal critic. “We don’t need to speculate on where remediation stands because there's data available,” he told me.
Others have been even more specific. A critique written early last year by Mark Anner of Pennsylvania State University and Bair, who was then at the University of Colorado at Boulder, argued that the report contained methodological errors that led Labowitz and Baumann-Pauly to vastly overstate the size of Bangladesh’s system of exporting factories, the number of workers not covered by the Accord and Alliance, and the number of factory workers in the country overall. Critics of the NYU study argued that because of these overestimates, resources may be spent trying to locate and fix factories that don’t exist, or to provide aid to workers who are already covered by the Accord and Alliance.
According to Labowitz and Baumann-Pauly’s estimates, there are around 7,165 export factories in the country, a number that Anner and Bair say is overestimated by at least 2,000, due to double-counting and a lack of accounting for factory closures. They also argue that the NYU estimate of 5.1 million garment factory workers is overestimated by more than 300,000, and that the calculation of the impact of small, unregistered factories is overstated. The researchers from NYU also found that vast subcontracting networks within the country make it more difficult to track down both factories and workers, but others say that while subcontracting is a problem, it accounts for only a small slice of the overall work being done in the country.
So, with a year left for factories to make fixes, what’s next? While Bair might dispute the figures Stern has put forth, she doesn’t dispute the fact that more work will likely be needed long past the 2018 deadline. Nova says that there may be room for some extension, at least when it comes to the Accord. But by and large, the factories that don’t make progress along the timelines set out by the Accord or Alliance would be “terminated” or “suspended,” but despite the terminology that doesn’t mean that these troubled factories would actually close—they’d just be rolled over to Bangladesh’s state-run initiative.
Bair is concerned about this. Not only does the national initiative lack the robust, private-sector-provided funding that the Alliance and the Accord have—which covers things like inspectors—it has less leverage, because it doesn’t have the ability to threaten to stop using unsafe factories, as Western companies do.“It’s worrisome that they’re basically being transferred to the initiative that has the least resources and the least leverage over the factories,” Bair says. It’s also the case that the government might be hesitant to shutter factories, since the industry brings in lots of revenue and jobs to the country.
But even if plans for continued structural improvement can be hashed out, there are other labor issues that will remain difficult to solve. “You fix the factories, and that’s important, but probably not sufficient without doing the second piece, which is training and empowering workers,” says Bair. As many experts told me, installing new fire doors does little good if factory managers haven’t been trained to keep them shut at all times. And when Bair mentioned “empowering workers,” she was referring to the need for workers to be able to report managers or companies that aren’t complying with new regulations or forcing workers into unsafe conditions. These are the sorts of things that could prevent or bring attention to dangerous labor practices long before problems arise, yet they aren’t the central concerns of any current efforts.
Labowitz, the co-author of the 2015 NYU study, sees other flaws in the efforts to at remediate Bangladesh’s factories. “[The unfinished remediation] also demonstrates the limits of the model where you basically push all the responsibility and the blame onto factories. There needs to be more accountability for the brands themselves,” she said. “In some ways, the Accord and the Alliance, they’re the most intense version of a strategy that's been tried for 25 years to try and reform bad factories. And it’s just not working.”
And these recent attempts at reform don’t even address the factories in Bangladesh that don’t export what they produce. Those factories may have conditions that are worse than the ones that produce exports, because they are subject only to national labor standards, as opposed to those of international brands. Sadly, the interest in making improvements after Rana Plaza in many ways can be traced back to the fact that wealthier consumers in other countries were in some way implicated by the collapse.
Figuring out a way to solve the problems in Bangladesh’s factories is important not just because they affect millions of the country’s workers, but because similar issues crop up in the garment industry all over the world. Getting things right in Bangladesh could provide a model for other countries to follow. Getting them wrong could, quite literally, be a matter of life or death.