Workers Need Full and Timely Information to Assess Job Safety
May 27, 2014

Efforts to make the Bangladesh garment industry safer and protect the rights of workers will not succeed unless details of all factory inspections are made public. Workers need this information so they can make informed decisions about whether it is safe to enter their factories.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director

(Bangkok) – Bangladesh government and retailers have largely failed to make public the findings of factory safety inspections ordered after the April 2013 Rana Plaza catastrophe that killed and injured several thousand workers, Human Rights Watch said today. Reports should be published in Bangla as well as English so that they are accessible to workers.

More than 1,100 workers died after they were persuaded, and in some cases forced, by their employers to return to Rana Plaza a day after they evacuated because large cracks appeared in the building’s walls. As a result of the tragedy, the Bangladesh government and western retailers are engaged in inspecting more than 3,500 garment factories for structural integrity and fire and electrical safety. Groups conducting inspections have committed to releasing details of their findings, but more than one year after the deadly disaster, reports on fewer than 40 factories have been published so far by nongovernmental groups. The government has published no information on the inspections that it has carried out.

“Efforts to make the Bangladesh garment industry safer and protect the rights of workers will not succeed unless details of all factory inspections are made public,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director. “Workers need this information so they can make informed decisions about whether it is safe to enter their factories.”

In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse, the Bangladesh government and retailers entered into several different agreements to ensure workplace safety for workers. The Bangladesh government is responsible for inspecting about 1,500 factories, many of which do sub-contracting work. Some are in shared buildings and are believed by experts to be the most at risk. 

In a program supported by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and funded by the European Union, the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) staff have already inspected more than 250 of these factories.

The government and ILO have set up a website to publish the inspection data, but to date nothing has been published. A spokesman for the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments said no decision had yet been taken on when the results of the investigations by BUET would be made public.

A group of 26 North American retailers, who work together as members of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, is inspecting about 680 factories. It has recently published the details of fire, structural, and electrical safety inspections of 28 factories. All of the factories require remedial work. The reports are in English, and include some photographs. According to the Alliance website, details have also been shared with workers and worker representatives, but Bangla versions of the reports have not been made public or posted on the Internet. The managing director of the Alliance, Rabin Mesbah, said at a news conference on May 16 that a further 10 to 15 reports will be released each month.

A second body, formed by 175 mainly European retailers, is currently inspecting 1,545 factories. They are signatories of the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety. This has made public details of ten factory inspections. The reports, which are designed to be easily understood by workers, are written in Bangla as well as English, and include photographs. The reports state that all ten factories inspected have safety problems that still need to be addressed. Some factories inspected by Accord engineers have been forced to shut due to serious structural problems. An Accord spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that more reports will soon be posted on the Internet.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Bangladesh is bound by article 7 that everyone has the right to “just and favorable conditions of work” which ensure, among other things, “safe and healthy working conditions.”

In July 2013, Bangladesh, the EU, and the ILO agreed to a compact on labor rights and factory safety. The three signatories, which were later joined by the US government, agreed to create “a publicly accessible database listing all RMG and knitwear factories, as a platform for reporting labor, fire and building safety inspections, which would include information on the factories and their locations, their owners, the results of inspections regarding complaints of anti-union discrimination and unfair labor practices, fines and sanctions administered, as well as remedial actions taken, if any, subject to relevant national legislation.”

Historically, factory inspections conducted in Bangladesh by either the government or retailers have been kept confidential. Such inspections, whether based on labor law or retailers’ codes of conduct, appear to have done little to prevent violations of labor rights, including harassment and firing of unionists, or reduce workplace accidents, factory fires, and structure collapses.

Workers in several factories told Human Rights Watch that managers often deceived retailers’ monitors or auditors, and were tipped off by them in advance of inspections so, for example, child workers could be hidden or sent home, or missing safety equipment could be borrowed from other factories.

A factory owner told Human Rights Watch that, prior to the Rana Plaza disaster, safety inspections were primarily intended to just make factories “look good on paper” rather than ensure safety for workers. For example, the owner noted that inspectors would count how many fire extinguishers there were, but then fail to ask about the number of workers trained to use them. The owner added that inspectors hired by western brands frequently requested factory owners to make safety improvements, but then failed to ensure the required remedial work was carried out.

“Ensuring workers know their rights, and can refuse work in an unsafe building, would be the most fitting tribute to the sacrifices made by workers at Rana Plaza,” Robertson said. “Worker safety will benefit if the Bangladesh garment industry becomes more open and transparent.”  

It is also important that the organizations, governments, and companies involved in making Bangladesh’s garment factories safer support efforts to organize trade unions. Although, since the Rana Plaza tragedy, the government has been registering more unions – it has registered more than 140 garment factory unions in this period, compared to only two in the previous three years. The vast majority of factories still do not have unions.

Workers are coming under huge pressure not to form labor unions. Human Rights Watch interviewed 47 workers in 21 factories, including some that are being inspected by the Accord and the Alliance, in late 2013. The workers claimed that some managers intimidate and mistreat employees involved in setting up unions, including threatening to kill them.

Some union organizers said they were beaten up, and others said they had lost their jobs or had been forced to resign. Factory owners sometimes used local gangsters to threaten or attack workers outside the workplace, including at their homes, they said. Many female workers said they received threats or insults of a sexual nature.

“Independent trade unions are key to ensuring that workers are not mistreated or forced to work in unsafe factories,” Robertson said. “The government needs to make sure that these anti-union activities are stopped immediately.”

More reporting on: