Six years ago today, Samira Akhter* was working in the finishing department on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, when the eight-story building collapsed. She was stranded in the rubble for three days before she was rescued.
With BRAC’s support, Samira recovered from the physical and mental distress she experienced, and later, after participating in skills training and receiving seed capital, Samira revived her family’s bamboo fence business to secure a sustainable income.
Many others were not so lucky. 1,134 garment workers lost their lives in the collapse of Rana Plaza, and more than 2,500 were severely injured. As the industry continues to grow rapidly, enjoying growth of 8.76% in 2018, ensuring the wellbeing of workers in the sector has never been more important for Bangladesh.
Women in the driving seat of the economy
The garment sector is an exceptional driver of economic development in Bangladesh. In 2018, the sector generated over USD 30 billion in export earnings, accounting for more than 80% of the country’s total exports.
This major portion of Bangladesh’s economy is fueled in large part by women. But while over 60% of garment workers are women, most live in poverty and work in the least senior positions in the industry. While these women play a key role in Bangladesh’s economic growth, they often experience poor working conditions and face unique health and safety issues.
With 3.5 million garment workers in Bangladesh, the opportunity to create a positive impact on the country’s people and the economy is immense.
A global wake-up call
The Rana Plaza tragedy was a wake-up call for the global fashion industry, shedding light on deep-rooted challenges in working conditions across the sector.
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, stakeholders across the industry responded. BRAC partnered with Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labor and Employment, ILO, clothing brands and philanthropists to provide critical medical assistance, financial compensation, and psychosocial support to hundreds of survivors like Samira. European and American clothing brands formed two collectives to spur industry improvements: the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
Over the past six years, the industry has invested millions of dollars in improvement initiatives in Bangladesh, with some success. For example, the Alliance reports that it has helped train nearly 1.6 million workers in fire safety, and the Accord has conducted over 35,000 inspections across the country. But six years on from Rana Plaza, the terms of these international regulatory bodies have expired. The Alliance ceased operations in Bangladesh in December 2018, and the Accord is slated to transition out next.
We must build the capacity of local actors who can lead sustainable improvements in working conditions across the garment sector in Bangladesh, and we must do it now.
An international development organisation born in Bangladesh, BRAC believes that local capacity is required for industry improvements to truly be sustained. Garment sector solutions must be owned by Bangladeshis in order to achieve catalytic and enduring impact.
Borrowing from nearly half a century of experience lifting communities out of poverty in Bangladesh, BRAC’s work in the garment sector takes a holistic approach, ranging from direct support of garment workers to partnerships with local governments, brands and factory management.
At the centre of BRAC’s programmes in the garment sector are the women who drive the industry.
Jenefa Jabbar, director of Human Rights and Legal Aid Services and Social Compliance at BRAC and the manager of the organisation’s work in the garment sector, is eager to continue building capacity at home – especially the capacity of women leaders.
“BRAC has focused on empowering women as drivers of development since its inception in Bangladesh nearly 50 years ago,” said Jenefa. “As the ready-made garment industry transforms rapidly, our focus is empowering the millions of Bangladeshi women who power the sector to advance the country’s most significant industry to the next level.”
Some of BRAC’s programmes that build capacity for women in Bangladesh’s garment sector include:
Like the direct support that helped Samira get back on her feet in the aftermath of Rana Plaza, BRAC’s on-the-ground initiatives go beyond the factory to address the realities that many garment workers face. These programmes help garment workers navigate the unique challenges, improving their day-to-day working conditions and the sector overall.
Building local capacity
In addition to directly supporting garment workers through its own local solutions, BRAC is forging partnerships with stakeholders across the industry to build local capacity and support equitable development within the garment sector.
In collaboration with worker communities, factory management, business associations, and government, BRAC is working to inspire a locally-driven, collective action approach, and to accelerate recent progress that has made the industry more safe, accountable, and competitive.
For example, this past February, BRAC University’s Centre for Entrepreneurship Development launched the first phase of Mapped in Bangladesh in partnership with C&A Foundation, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Mapped in Bangladesh is a digital map of export-oriented garment factories in Bangladesh, which aims to provide publicly available, credible, and up-to-date information on garment factories in order to enable greater transparency, accountability, and productivity within the industry. A home-grown transparency tool designed and built by Bangladeshi enumerators and engineers, the map is the first of its kind for the global apparel industry.
BRAC will continue to drive local solutions and develop capacity at home to ensure that the “Made in Bangladesh” brand represents a new way of making clothes, where safe buildings, just labor practices, and good working conditions are the norm, so that a disaster like Rana Plaza never happens again.
*Name changed to preserve anonymity
Linda Patentas is a programme manager for Cities, Supply Chains, and Migration at BRAC USA, and Sarah Allen is a communications associate at BRAC USA.