The textile industry in Bangladesh, a significant contributor to the country’s economy, has faced numerous health and safety issues. However, concerted efforts by various organizations and the government have led to significant improvements in recent years.
Major Health and Safety Concerns
The textile industry encompasses various units, including spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing, and finishing. Each of these units presents its unique set of health and safety challenges. The primary concerns include:
- Exposure to Cotton Dust: The processing and spinning of cotton generate cotton dust, which often contains particles of pesticides and soil. When inhaled, this dust can cause serious lung issues, including “brown lung.”
- Exposure to Chemicals: Workers involved in cleaning, finishing, and softening processes are exposed to harmful chemicals such as benzedrine, optical brighteners, solvents, fixatives, and formaldehyde. Contact with these chemicals can lead to various diseases, including different types of cancer.
- Exposure to Noise: High noise levels are common in textile industries, particularly in spinning and weaving units. Prolonged exposure to such noise can lead to hearing loss, sleep disorders, tension, and changes in pulse rate and blood pressure.
- Ergonomic Issues: In developing countries, workers often operate in cramped environments with poor lighting and ventilation. This leads to various musculoskeletal disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and pain in the back, shoulder, and neck.
ILO’s Intervention and Achievements
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been actively involved in enhancing safety in Bangladeshi garment factories. Following the Rana Plaza disaster, the ILO, with support from Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, launched the “Improving Working Conditions in the Ready-Made Garment Sector Programme” in September 2013. The main goal of the program is to enhance safety in factories to prevent a recurrence of a tragedy like the Rana Plaza collapse.
The ILO’s program has achieved several milestones:
- Building and Fire Safety: Over 1,549 factories were inspected for structural, fire, and electrical safety. The factories were supported in implementing remedial measures based on the inspection recommendations.
- Strengthening Labour Inspection System: A labour inspection reform roadmap was created, and a labour inspection strategy was developed. Additionally, 239 inspectors completed a 40-day training program.
- Building a Culture of Safety: The program has worked towards improving the legislative and policy environment and enhancing the capacity of government, employers’, and workers’ organizations to manage occupational safety and health (OSH) issues. More than 800,000 workers were trained on essential OSH.
- Support for Rana Plaza Victims: The program provided support to the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster, including livelihood skills training, career counseling, and psychosocial counseling.
The Resilience and Rebound of the Bangladeshi Garment Industry
Despite facing significant challenges, the Bangladeshi garment industry has shown remarkable resilience and growth. Over the past seven years, the industry’s annual revenue has surged by 79%, increasing from $19 billion to $34 billion. This growth has positioned Bangladesh as the second-largest exporter of garments globally, with the sector accounting for 80% of the country’s total export earnings.
The industry’s impressive growth has occurred in the wake of two devastating garment factory disasters in 2012 and 2013, which claimed the lives of over 1,200 workers. The industry’s recovery can be attributed to improved labor regulations and safety conditions implemented after these tragedies. As a result, Bangladesh has become an attractive option for international clothing brands, especially those seeking to diversify manufacturing locations and those concerned about how global trade negotiations might affect their operations.
Environmental and Safety Improvements
In addition to better working conditions, new initiatives have been launched to improve environmental practices within the Bangladeshi garment industry. One such initiative is the Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT) program, launched by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in 2013. The program aims to increase the competitiveness of the Bangladeshi garment sector by helping suppliers reduce the use of resources such as water and energy, thereby meeting the standards required by global brands.
The PaCT program also works with financial institutions to help factories access finance. It has established a $200 million Green Transformation Fund, through which the Bangladeshi government supports low-cost financing for the textile industry to purchase new technologies for resource-efficiency upgrades.
Protecting Workers and the Economy
The Bangladeshi government, global retailers, foreign governments, and international organizations, including the IFC, have taken steps to improve safety and labor conditions in the garment industry. The IFC established a $40 million credit facility that enabled local banks to help factories upgrade their structural, electrical, and fire safety standards. Through the program, the banks provided 72 factories with loans ranging from $200,000 to $1 million. IFC also worked with the Bangladeshi government to design and implement policies, laws, and regulations that streamlined processes.
Compliance and Enforcement
The International Labor Organization reported that 1,690 factories were complying with fire and building safety standards, and 655 factories were complying with worker safety standards. Authorities have shut down 59 manufacturing units so far this year for failing to comply with new regulations.
Gender Equality and Returns (GEAR) Program
The IFC’s Gender Equality and Returns (GEAR) program offers career-progression opportunities for female sewing operators by training them in the soft and technical skills necessary for them to take on supervisory roles. It also trains factory managers on how to select, promote, and support female talent. The program builds on a successful pilot that trained 144 female sewing operators and other workers in 28 factories. An assessment of the pilot showed that 60 percent of the trainees received a promotion offer within weeks of completing the training. The program also boosted productivity: efficiency gains rose on average five percentage points on production lines led by trained supervisors.
The Bangladeshi garment industry’s rebound is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the sector. Despite facing significant challenges, the industry has managed to implement necessary safety and environmental improvements, attract international brands, and contribute significantly to the country’s economy.
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You might also be interested in our article about Labor Rights and Working Conditions in Bangladesh’s Apparel Industry.
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