In recent decades, Bangladesh has emerged as a leading textile exporter globally due to its low labor cost and high-quality products. But the future of this industry suddenly became bleak after the country was hit by two major disasters—the 2012 Tazreen factory fire that killed 117 people, and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse that resulted in 1,134 deaths and injured around 2,500 residents. Both incidents touched off efforts to improve health and safety standards in the industry.
The accidents prompted the entire ready-made garment (RMG) industry to enter into agreements with associations of international buyers and local and global trade unions under the auspices of the International Labor Organization (ILO) including the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (the Alliance). The Accord is a safety pact signed by global unions and more than 200 brands that mandates building inspections, upgrades and closures where buildings are structurally unsafe, and make brands and retailers contractually liable for the safety of the factories where their garments are produced. The Alliance is a group of 28 major global retailers representing the majority of North American importers of ready-made garments from Bangladesh, that launched the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative—a binding, five-year undertaking that intends to improve safety in Bangladeshi ready-made garment (RMG) factories.
Joining these organizations requires companies to comply with their standards. Companies should also be ready to be inspected by independent consultants, document weaknesses, and devise and carry out corrective action plans (CAPs) to be able to obtain industry certifications.
Increasing women's participation in society and in their communities is a critical step towards achieving sustainable economic growth and social development.
Affordable, high-quality health services need to be widely available to ensure no one is impoverished by paying for medical care.
In August 2015, ADB approved a loan of up to $30 million to the BRAC Bank in Bangladesh to provide finance for RMG companies in complying with health, safety and labor standards and assist their factory expansion. The project also supported the construction of wastewater treatment plants, particularly in the RMG industry.
Hawa Khatun is one of the sewing machine operators at Energypac Fashions Limited—one of the four RMG companies assisted by the ADB loan through the BRAC Bank. She remembers how work was full of challenges years ago.
"We used to work in an environment that was not safe especially for women and mothers. There were no separate toilets for men and women. There was poor housekeeping that could have triggered accidents. We also used manual machines that are accident-prone. We had poor medical and childcare facilities. And as a mother, it was a real burden for me to leave my child at home to go to work. I was also always concerned about getting sick because we did not have health facilities in the factory," lamented Ms. Khatun.
Energypac currently has 6,500 employees, 60% or 3,900 of whom are women. This registers an increase of 4300 employees after partnering with the BRAC Bank. Their previous conditions reflected the situation of Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers, more than 58 percent of whom are women.
With ADB's investment, Energypac was able to obtain 100% compliance with standards set out by the Accord and the Alliance. They built separate toilet facilities for women and men workers, daycare facilities for working mothers, and adequate health centers for women and men. They also conducted fire and building safety training for all male and female workers while maintaining a database that helps the company track the wellbeing of their employees regularly and assess gender indicators systematically.
"These facilities and workplace activities help us ensure a gender-responsive environment in our factory," said Energypac Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Mr. Pavel Bhowmick. "We constructed a medical facility, daycare facility and a canteen for all our employees, especially women, providing them with a comfortable workplace."
Mr Bhowmick said that having a canteen inside the work premises significantly improves staff well-being and productivity, reducing the frequency of workers being late from their breaks. A medical facility at work, he said, helps women cope easily with their health needs including maternal health care.
He added: "Aside from these facilities, our company meets the structural, fire, and electrical safety standards required by the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety."
"We feel that our employees are now happy with their work. We also now pay them through digital banking, which adds to their convenience. This is complemented by a financial literacy program for our employees with support from the BRAC Bank," Mr. Bhowmick added. "With this program, women have become better decision-makers in managing their family’s finances."
Ms. Khatun said the improvements in her work environment makes her more motivated to work.
"Our work condition is now safer and healthier. And I really appreciate our childcare facility because I do not have to leave my child at home. I can now visit my baby during my breaks, making me more productive,” said Ms. Khatun.
She added: "With these improvements in our workplace, our role as women is not just confined to domestic work. We also feel empowered by being supported to work and earn, and can now play a big role in improving the quality of life for our families."
Since partnering with the BRAC Bank through the ADB loan, Energypac has expanded its production area from 64,500 to 215,000 square feet, and has increased its exports from US$18 million in 2017 to US$ 75 million in 2022.
Energypac recently earned the highest (platinum) certification in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, a worldwide criterion for green building certification that recognizes how a building implements positive steps to protect and improve human and environmental health.