Two and a half years after the Rana Plaza building collapse and the launch of the first industrial reform programs to address the pervasive fire and structural hazards in Bangladeshi garment factories, workers report they will not be safe without a voice at work. Fire, electrical, and structural safety in garment factories is essential and will save lives. But these renovations and repairs must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety. A next phase of reforms must instill the lessons that respect for workers is as important to safety as are fire exits, that workers’ perspectives on safety are as important as the findings of building engineers. Without it workers’ lives and health will continue to be in jeopardy.
Between October 2014 and January 2015, the International Labor Rights Forum interviewed more than 70 workers with the assistance of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. We set out to talk with them about fire, electrical, and structural safety issues. But almost all workers wanted to talk to us about more than the necessary technical repairs and renovations in their factories. This report is an attempt to do justice to their words and to tell the story of safety from the point of view of the workers we interviewed.
The workers we interviewed describe a chilling web of social relations of intimidation and violence that spans factories and apparel companies, workers’ communities, government agencies, law enforcement, and even their families. The effect of this web is that workers are silenced. They emphasize that until it is broken they cannot be safe. In the words of one worker, “We say nothing. They say everything. Then how would we say that it’s safe?”
The workers explain that safety is never just a thing that is given them, but a process in which they are actively and vocally engaged. They tell us “how to be safe,” a reciprocal process where factory owners and the government listen to workers and workers to them. Safety, the workers say, is fundamentally about mutual respect for their shared humanity and consideration for their different needs. This insight is at the core of these workers’ understanding of safety.
Unfortunately, safety, as a process of reciprocity and mutual respect, is something the workers we interviewed rarely experience. Instead they report production targets and workloads so high managers prevent them from taking necessary restroom breaks, drinking water, leaving the factory at a reasonable hour, or getting leaves from work to attend to their own or their family members’ medical emergencies. They tell us about wages so low they are effectively trapped in abusive conditions, and about sexual harassment and abuse for which the victims are blamed. In a word, instead of a safe working environment, they describe to us, with some notable exceptions, a state of abject powerlessness. This is the opposite of safety, from workers’ point of view.
The social and economic issues that workers brought to the fore of our conversations about safety are not only legitimate safety issues in their own right, but also indicators that fire and building safety could be in jeopardy in the long run despite the current reform efforts. Workers’ heavy and increasing workloads and associated abuses reflect the industry’s intense price pressures and compressed production schedules, which managers enforce on workers, demanding more pieces per hour, more hours per day, and less leave from work. These are the same pressures that originally caused factory owners in nearly every garment factory in Bangladesh to circumvent basic safety measures and could do so again when the attention of the world is turned elsewhere, and when the current reform programs come to an end. Indeed, there is growing evidence that these production pressures are already causing dangerous delays of essential safety repairs and renovations in most factories that are being investigated.
The two main industrial reform programs, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, differ markedly in their attention to the social relations of violence and intimidation that threaten workers’ safety. The Accord is a powersharing agreement between apparel companies and unions; its premise is that companies and worker organizations should engage as equals in solving safety problems. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is an agreement among apparel companies alone and does not provide a meaningful voice to workers or trade unions.
Worker leaders in factories covered by the Accord program describe a new level of access to factory inspections and inspection results, unparalleled in industry social auditing, where audit reports are typically proprietary to the industry, workers excluded from inspections, and unions sidelined from remediation programs. They talk about the open collaboration between the Accord and signatory union federations, and describe several cases where the Accord and its signatory brands have defended workers against retaliation when they voiced safety concerns or partook in Accord investigations. By contrast, the Alliance, in its promotional materials and according to workers we interviewed, appears to overlook incidents of harassment and violence against union members.
The next phase of safety reforms should build on the progress achieved under the Accord. The goal should be an end to the reprisals against workers who make their voices heard, and a safe working environment where factory owners and managers engage with workers with mutual respect. To achieve this goal, the Bangladeshi government must register unions according to the law, and investigate and publicly denounce factory owners for using thugs to silence workers through violence and intimidation. Factory owners must adopt a zero-tolerance policy for managers who threaten or inflict violence against workers, and urge the industry associations to do the same toward their members. Apparel brands and retailers must reform their purchasing practices to cease commercial demands that contribute to the silencing of workers, committing instead to prices and delivery times in line with the cost and time of producing goods in compliance with all safety and labor regulations. People everywhere can play a critical role in advancing these social safety reforms by holding apparel brands and retailers to account, urging meaningful action from governments, demanding that workers’ voices be heard, always asking: Do we know what it means to be safe for workers?