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Bangladesh can look to this unlikely place to fix its garment sector

  • Sarah Labowitz
By Sarah Labowitz

Co-founder, Center for Business and Human Rights, NYU Stern School of Business

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.
Bishawjit Das for NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights
A factory complex (July 2013) similar in design to Rana Plaza before it collapsed.

Detroit is a long way from Dhaka, but the American city’s efforts to address blight offer lessons for cleaning up the garment sector in Bangladesh. Released in May, the Detroit’s Blight Removal Task Force’s plan (pdf) offers a practical vision for addressing the more than 78,000 dilapidated buildings that are the primary obstacle to the city’s growth and vitality. In the year since the factory collapse in Dhaka, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers, brands and policymakers have focused on improving inspection in a subset of factories producing for the export market. Companies like the Gap, Wal-mart, H&M, Target, Zara, and Mango are wrestling with how to solve the problem of poor workplace safety in a country where the government doesn’t provide basic protections for workers in its number one export industry. The next important step for Bangladesh—and the brands and retailers that depend on the country’s apparel sector—is developing a comprehensive plan for relocating, closing, and fixing factories. Here’s where Detroit can help:

  1. Define the standard. The Blight Task Force defined blight according to a variety of factors, including structural soundness, fire damage, and health and safety. In Bangladesh, two private initiatives, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, have defined a common standard for factory safety. But this standard only applies to about 1,800 factories the brands and retailers acknowledge are part of their supply chains. It doesn’t apply broadly to the total universe of 5,000 to 6,000 factories and facilities likely producing for the export market. More work needs to be done to define safety standards that apply across the sector, including small facilities that operate in rented or mixed-use buildings and that often are not transparent to brands.
  1. Assess the universe. In Detroit, hundreds of workers spent months photographing and recording 380,000 parcels of land. Despite the fact that garments represent 80% of Bangladesh’s export economy, no one is certain how many factories are actually producing for the export market, much less the conditions in these factories. A similar effort is needed to build an authoritative database of garment facilities, including both registered and unregistered units.
Garment factories sit above a food stall and a market in Dhaka. (July 2013)
  1. Establish a task force. President Obama established the Blight Removal Task Force in September 2013. The task force includes the private sector, public officials, and nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. It has a clear mandate to develop straightforward and detailed recommendations to remove blight. A similar effort is needed in Bangladesh to bring together the Bangladeshi government, international brands and retailers, garment manufacturers from Bangladesh, foreign governments, unions, civil society groups, and development and donor organizations.
  1. Make practical recommendations. Like the Blight Task Force, a task force for the garment sector in Bangladesh would need a clear mandate to develop ambitious and concrete approaches to upgrade the sector as a whole. This will require a combination of strategies to develop new purpose-built areas for garment production, relocate factories and workers to these areas, make improvements to existing factories, and close factories that do not meet basic standards. Any recommendations should recognize the continued importance of subcontracting and the role of small, flexible producers in the supply chain.
Some of the smallest, riskiest factories fall outside the two private initiatives designed to inspect factories producing for the export market. (July 2013)
  1. Commit funds. President Obama has committed $300 million to Detroit, and the Blight Task Force predicts the total bill to remove residential blight will run to $850 million over several years. The plan is to raise these funds from a combination of federal, state and local sources, as well as the private sector and foundations. In Bangladesh, different actors have made contributions to support compensating victims of Rana Plaza, conducting inspections, training workers, and fixing some factories. But the funding has been dispersed through a series of difficult to understand pots of money, with little transparency about what has been spent. A consolidated fund is badly needed to implement comprehensive recommendations for upgrading the sector, with contributions from governments, brands and retailers, manufacturers, development organizations, and foundations.

“Eliminating all blight from Detroit is an enormous task, but Detroiters have the inventiveness, grit, and resiliency to get it done,” says the Blight Task Force plan. Bangladesh has yet to garner the political and industry leadership that will be required to tackle a comprehensive upgrade of its apparel sector. But Bangladeshis have the same kind of determination and ambition that are on display in Detroit. Since the arrival of the garment sector in the late 1970s, the country’s poverty rate has dropped by nearly one-third. Ensuring that the export garment sector continues to drive economic growth and respects workers’ rights is a challenge Bangladesh must get right.

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