Complaints about safety in Bangladesh factories hit a high in 2018

Workers outraged over poor working conditions

DHAKA (Reuters) – Garment factory workers in Bangladesh filed a record number of complaints about safety, 662 last year, showing that a mechanism set up by European fashion brands to improve working conditions was proving effective, trade unions said last Tuesday.

The Bangladesh Accord was signed by some 200 global brands and unions in 2013 after the Rana Plaza disaster, when about 1,100 people were killed after a garment factory complex collapsed – sparking outrage over poor working conditions.

The legally-binding accord, which covers almost 1,700 factories, has signatory clothing brands and retailers from about 20 countries, such as Britain’s supermarket group Tesco, Swedish fashion group H&M and German sportswear giant Adidas.

The Accord has received 1,152 complaints since starting work in 2014, many relating to fire and structural hazards, it said in a report on Monday, adding that it had made more than 100 factories ineligible to supply its signatory firms.

"Compared to other complaint mechanisms, the owners take the complaints filed in the Accord a bit more seriously," Amirul Haque Amin, head of the National Garment Workers Federation, Bangladesh’s largest union, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"They know that the buyers are also a stakeholder here and if they don’t address the problem properly, their business may be affected," he said, referring to the Accord's ban on non-compliant factories supplying its signatory buyers.

Bangladesh, which ranks behind only China as a supplier of clothes to Western countries, relies on the garment industry for more than 80 per cent of its exports and about 4 million jobs.

While the Rana Plaza disaster, one of the world’s worst industrial accidents, prompted retailers to take stronger action to protect workers, campaigners say progress has been slow.

The Accord said it had resolved about one-third of the complaints it had received – from physical abuse and sexual harassment to mandatory overtime and non-payment of maternity benefits. A similar number fell outside its mandate, it said.

The latest figures come as the Accord is battling to extend its stay in Bangladesh until 2021, as agreed by its signatories, when it will be replaced by a national regulatory body.

A High Court last year ordered the Accord to shut down, following a petition filed by a local readymade garments supplier against the pact, a ruling that it is appealing in the Supreme Court. A hearing is due on April 7.

"This is a strong platform," said Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a union. "Based on the cases that I have seen, I can say that whenever a complaint is resolved through Accord, a precedent is set in the factory."