Garment Industry Compliance System in Bangladesh
Md. Nasir Uddin, Md. Mozammel Haque, Md. Fakhrul Islam Sumon, Saiful Islam, Kazi Mahbubul Hoq
Department of Textile Engineering
Daffodil International University
Compliance is undertaking activities or establishing practices or policies in accordance with the requirements or expectations of an external authority such as: ILO, human rights organization and international buyer requirements etc. The continual increase in demands from regulatory authorities aimed at ultimately improving patient and consumer safety have had a welcome impact on product quality. To promote compliance, it is important that management take the lead in implementing compliance initiatives.
Bangladesh has emerged as a key player in RMG (Ready Made Garment) sector since 1978. Textiles and clothing account for about 85% of total export earnings of Bangladesh. Out of which, 76% comes from the apparel sector which covers the major products of knit and woven shirts, blouses, trousers, skirts, shorts, jackets, sweaters, sportswear and many more casual and fashion items.
The pivotal factor in the garment industry is the workforce i.e. the sewing operators, the helpers, cutting masters, pattern makers, finishers etc. Bangladesh is endowed with abundant and cheap labor force that is easily trainable and convertible into semi-skilled and skilled workforce.
Quality of goods exported from Bangladesh has always been questioned by the foreign buyers due to lack of experience and awareness of Garment manufacturers associated in the trade. In order to export readymade garments, it is not only the quality parameters which are important towards acceptance of the product as per the intended end use, but also the working environment in which the garments are to be produced, is equally important so that sweatshop concept is totally taken care of and the code of conduct must be stretched towards achieving the objectives of social compliance issues.
The core areas of social accountability are, basically, based on the principles of international human rights, local culture and tradition. The prime objective of the system is to protect the human rights in ready made garment industries.
In today’s fast changing global market, it is not only the quality of garments which cherished the retailers and manufacturers but also the working environments of the organization wherein the products were produced. Those are equally important to gain and strengthen consumer confidence and to build-up more reliable relationships with vendors. In other words, specific code of conduct that protects the basic human rights of the workforce engaged in the trade is to be respected to satisfy consumers and to add social value to the product. Basic awareness of the social accountability helps to understand and monitor the compliance part of it in protecting the image of a particular brand of product.
In order to do so, the reputed and leading market players in the garment trade have imposed compulsion on the related factories to achieve those objectives as a condition of the export contract. Even the exports were either withheld or cancelled elsewhere in the event of non-compliance to such issues.
Code of Conduct (COC):
Social Accountability standards have been developed by the international organizations such as Fair Labor Association (FLA), Worldwide Responsible Apparel production (WRAP) , Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (CEPAA), The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and Business for Social Responsibility (BSR).
Reputed brand buyers in large supply chain have taken the guideline from those organizations and formulated their own standard of COC and also the acceptance criteria.
The basic principles of COC have been derived from the principles of international human rights norms as delineated in International labor Organization Conventions, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It has nine core areas to be addressed upon. These are as follows:
- Child labor
- Forced labor
- Health and safety
- Working hours
- Free association and collective bargaining
- Management systems
While following the above criteria is compulsory for satisfying COC, local culture and regulation of Govt. can not be overlooked. For instance, limit of working hours and compensation for extra work may not be the same for all geographical zones in the globe. Minimum basic wage also depends on the economic situation of a particular country in question. The introduction of rights of free association and collective bargaining is guided by the political environment, the maturity level of workforce and above all the basic training of the management of the organization.
By keeping in mind the complex scenario, several case studies in Bangladesh have been made with respect to the information obtained through actual social compliance audits performed by leading auditors of internationally well-known consumer products service companies.
Social compliance audits conducted as per the COC of different brand buyers of USA and Europe were basically based on the following steps:
- Opening meeting with the factory management (informed the scope of audit)
- Factory Tour (observed working condition)
- Document Review (payroll, time card, personal file, age documentation etc.)
- Employees Interview
- Closing meeting with factory management (discussed audit findings and recommended necessary improvements).
Highlights of typical findings in different aspects of social accountability are described below. Suggested corrective actions in typical cases are also indicated. Some of the non-compliance issues have also been photographed as shown in Plate no 1 to 6. This is to understand the actual scenario of social compliance in different RMG factories in Bangladesh.
Violation: Factory paid wages in installment throughout a month instead of disbursing the payment within particular period of the next month.
Corrective Action: This is considered as a delayed payment. To comply with The Payments of Wages Act of Bangladesh, 1937, wages shall be paid by 7th of the next month up to 1000 workers.
Violation: Employees punched their time cards two hours earlier (7 p.m.) than the actual time of departure (9 p.m.) from the factory. Factory management wanted to hide the actual working hours.
Corrective Action: To comply with The Payment of Wages Rules, 1936 of Bangladesh, all working hours shall be recorded in the time card.
Violation: Child labor was found at the factory. It was confirmed from the verification of personal document and the appearance of the employee. From the workers interview, it was understood that one worker was about 13 years old.
Corrective Action: According to The Factory Act of 1968 in the Bangladesh labor Code, any person who has not completed sixteen years of age is defined as a child. Article 66 prohibits the employment of any children under the age of fourteen. Factory management agreed to take care of this matter.
Most child laborers have been cleared out of Bangladesh’s RMG sector under international pressure, but sporadic cases still exist due to economic reason.
No such cases were found wherein there was use of forced labor in the factories. Direct evidence which indicates personnel shall require to lodge deposits or identity papers upon commencing employment with the company was also not available. .
Violation: Factory management is reluctant to recruit employees from the area where the factory is situated. This is not only to avoid local protests against working condition, but also due to fear of post scenario of a disciplinary case. Thus, there is discrimination in hiring workforce.
Corrective Action: To comply with social accountability standard, recruitment shall not be biased towards avoiding local candidate at the time of recruitment.
Violation: Overtime wages of the workers were deducted as a means of punishment if they could not achieve the daily production target.
Corrective Action: Employees, if fail to attend weekend work, were deliberately made absent for 2 to 3 days from his working period.
Violation: In one of the factories in Chittagong, Bangladesh working for a reputed brand of USA, physical torture was reported for simple mistakes including no payment of wage.
Corrective Action: The factories shall not engage in or support the use of corporal punishment, mental or physical coercion, and verbal abuse. Wages shall not be deducted as a form of punishment.
Health & Safety:
Violation: Workers did not use gloves and/or masks while handling chemicals and dyes in chemical storage area of Dyeing Department.
Corrective Action: In order to comply with The Factories Act, 1965, Chapter 3 and 4 of Bangladesh, management shall provide adequate gloves and/or masks to the appropriate workers. They must be motivated through training to use such protective equipment for safety.
Violation: Number of toilets in the production floor are not sufficient to cover all the employees.
Corrective Action: Factory shall construct sufficient number of toilets in accordance with The Factories Act, 1965, Chapter- 3 and 4.
Violation: No soap and towels were there inside all the toilets in a factory.
Corrective Action: Soaps and towels are to be provided at all the toilets in the factory.
Violation: Fire extinguishers were found blocked in some areas of the factory and were not easily accessible.
Corrective Action: All fire extinguishers shall be cleared from obstruction at all time. Area in front of fire extinguishers shall be marked on the ground with yellow lines to indicate that the area must be kept clear at all times.
Violation: Aisles were not marked at different sections of the factory.
Corrective Action: Factory shall put marking on the floor with yellow lines to indicate the evacuation paths.
Violation: No evacuation plan was observed throughout the factory.
Corrective Action: Factory shall prepare and post evacuation plan at different areas of the factory to facilitate smooth evacuation in the case of emergency.
Violation: Drinking water closets were found very near (2-3 feet) to the toilets.
Corrective Action: As per The Factories Act, 1965 of Bangladesh, factory shall place drinking water closets at a minimum of 20 feet distance from the toilets.
Violation: Primary/secondary aisles were found blocked by fabric roll, cartons, garments etc. in different sections of the factory. Electrical control panel was also found blocked.
Corrective Action: Factory, in accordance with The Factories Act in Bangladesh, shall make sure that all the passages and control panels remain unblocked at all times.
Violation: No protective hand gloves were in use by the fabric cutting knife operators which might cause serious accident at any time.
Corrective action: Factory management shall supply metal hand gloves to the operators and motivate them to use such protective equipment’s for safety.
Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining:
Violation: Employees were not permitted to bargain collectively about their requirements.
Corrective Action: All employees shall be permitted to bargain collectively about their rights.
Compensation and Working Hours:
Violation: Weekend and overnight worked hours were not recorded in the time cards and payroll sheets and also not compensated properly.
Corrective Action: Factory shall record all worked hours in payroll sheets and time cards and shall compensate those correctly. This is to satisfy The Payment of Wage Rules, 1937 of Bangladesh.
Violation: Female workers were working from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. as overtime.
Corrective Action: Factory shall allow female workers to work between 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. only with a view to comply with The Factories Act, 1965, Chapter-6, Bangladesh.
Violation: Overtime worked hours had exceeded the legal limits of stipulated hours per month with a large margin.
Corrective Action: Factory shall not allow anyone to work more than 10 hours per day and 60 hours per week. The duration of 60 hours per week shall be represented as 48 hours general duty plus 12 hours overtime as per the local law of Bangladesh.
Violation: Factory did not comply with the local law of Bangladesh in the payment of overtime wages for all the workers in the factory.
Corrective Action: Factory shall follow legal requirement for overtime compensation, which is double of the basic pay.
Current level of maintenance of compliance with hygiene and safety standards is not adequate and the reported tragedies like the incidence of fire in the garment industry support the fact to a certain degree. Such accidents seriously tarnish the image of Bangladesh and could cause buyers to turn to countries where tragedies of this type are less likely or are hidden from the international press.
In spite of the promulgation of laws by the Government, the majority of garment workers remain deprived of their legal rights. Laws are there in the papers but its implementation is not always felt while looking at it from the micro level right on the ground. Some of the issues which still remain neglected are:
- Minimum basic salary,
- Working hours,
- Overtime calculation,
- Off day in a week and
- Yearly increment.
It is worthwhile to mention that the workers engaged in the factories inside Export Processing Zones in Bangladesh enjoy better working environment than the workers outside the Export Processing Zones. This has attracted many foreign investors in the zone wherein Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) has recently adopted a policy to safeguard the legitimate rights of workers by the formation of Workers Welfare Committee (WWC) at each enterprise. In fact, in the context of prohibition of trade union as per BEPZA Act, it is regarded as a constructive effort to fulfill the requirement of freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Recent Incident In Non-Compliance Factory:
Rana Plaza collapse is the best example of non-compliance garment factory. The second fire incident at a garment factory in Dhaka city after the one at Tazreen November, 2012 has intensified the debate over the compliance issue. Fire incident in Tongi garments and packaging industry is also recent occurrence. This is putting lives and livelihood of thousands of workers at risk. Maintenance of links in a properly operational supply-chain that can feed stores around the world without putting the country’s garment workers at stake is the challenge for its apparel industries.
The global attention is now focused on the Bangladesh garment industry. How far the fatal fire incidents will leave a negative impact on the whole readymade garment (RMG) sector, is not yet clearly known.
Being worried about issues relating to labor standards in Bangladesh, the US apparel buyers are now putting pressure on the RMG makers here to ensure proper compliance with such standards in the sector. The buyers in the overseas markets are now more concerned about the issue; they have called upon the government of Bangladesh to monitor such a situation at the RMG units. The new Congress in the USA has attached a priority to it.
The ministry of foreign affairs (MoFA) has recently received complaints from some US major apparel buyers about a considerable number of RMG units “flouting” the labor and other related standards. Most of the RMG workers’ birth registration and payment system are not authentic. Raising objections to the accounts structure in the Bangladesh apparel factories, they said the RMG makers in most of the cases show fake ones. They also expressed concern over major loopholes of the compliance system in textile sector in Bangladesh.
On its part, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said Bangladesh apparel makers are also aware of the issue. It has claimed that almost all the garment manufacturers maintain superb labor standards at their factories, noting that any strict labor policy is unlikely to hamper RMG exports to the US market.
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Economists identified high lead time, less productivity comparing to other competing nations despite relatively low wages and infrastructure bottleneck as the major impediments for garment industries in Bangladesh. In the absence of adequate number of backward linkage industries, duration of producing apparels take comparatively more time, as enterprises need to import raw materials and face an unnecessary delay due to bureaucratic Red Tape sluggishness of customs formalities and the loading and unloading of ships. In order to shorten these periods, the garment manufacturers tend to force their workers into lengthy working hours when a large order comes in, but this arrangement, which ignores the workers basic right, is ineffective in both the short and long term in international business.
Brand buyers often argue that producing garments in countries which are just beginning to industrialize is a painful process, but in reality some re-adjustments are also to be required on the part of such buyers as well. It is desired that factories should pay higher wages and provide more welfare oriented services to the workers. But the abrupt reduction of CMT (cutting, making and trimming) charges in recent months by the buyers has resulted in additional expenditure towards overhead cost for the factory owners. Thus, the buyers also need to consider that the rate at which they place their orders should commensurate with the cost involvement to match with the desired compliance level.
However, the demand for compliance-related executives has gone up, all on a sudden, at a time when the RMG sector is itself facing shortage of skilled manpower. Personnel having proper academic background and appropriate experience in related matters, are now in high demand by both RMG and non-RMG industries, particularly after the Tazreen fire incident. Most of the country’s export-oriented factories are in a rush to appoint ‘compliance experts’ to their factories. The pressure from their overseas buyers for ensuring standard working conditions at the factories is now mounting.
But the supply of local qualified manpower to deal with compliance matters relating to labor standards is short of the current requirements. The overseas buyers are reportedly assigning their own workforce to monitor conditions at the workplace where the goods are made for shipment. Capitalizing on the sudden increase in demand, local ‘compliance’ personnel are now demanding overbloated compensation packages from the factory owners. This situation is compelling the factories to recruit relevant manpower from countries like India, Sri Lanka etc.
Meanwhile, ensuring workers’ rights at factory level is becoming all the more difficult because trade union activities are not allowed at enterprise-level in the RMG sector in particular. This has also raised worries among the buyers from the European Union (EU) and US. The observers of the situation have called for a change of employers’ attitudes towards the workers, as some owners are setting; what they have alleged, bad examples. There, they have suggested, should be elected representatives of workers to bargain with the management or owners at the factory level. The workers need also to enhance their productivity and to go by the standard rules of the same about trade union activities. The proposal for creation of a separate fund, to be jointly managed by the management and buyers, has also been mooted to help promote workers’ welfare.
The RMG sector has otherwise proved itself to be a boon for Bangladesh. It is the mainstay of its economy, facilitating its sustained 6.0 per cent plus gross domestic product (GDP) growth over the years. It has provided millions of jobs both within the industry and those connected with backward linkages. Only recently, BGMEA said that it will de-register 850 factories for non-compliance — 600 this month and the rest in February. A similar move was taken in 2002 when 550 factories were thrown out of the trade promotion organization, and yet several tragedies occurred over the last 10 years, the worst of which was at Tazreen factory. This clearly shows that the step was not practical. So what guarantee is there that it will not be repeated?
Bangladesh now being on the watch-list, international buyers and consumers would like to see effective steps in place to help avert a new tragedy. Just because of a few grossly non-compliant operators, the whole sector is getting a bad name and as such, running the risk of losing markets.
Under such circumstances, restoring the image of the country’s RMG sector is now an urgent national task. The government, the apparel owners, workers’ representatives and all others do need to urgently put in their joint efforts to facilitate sustained development of the industry.
The prospects for Bangladesh’s accelerated growth performance do largely hinge on the developments in its RMG sector. So also the scope for creating employment for new workers will depend on unhindered growth of this sector, in view of the new dynamics of the global RMG market following rising level of workers’ wages in countries like China.
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Founder & Editor of Textile Learner. He is a Textile Consultant, Blogger & Entrepreneur. He is working as a textile consultant in several local and international companies. He is also a contributor of Wikipedia.