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June 10, 2014

Protecting ‘the World’s Garment Factory' Workers in Bangladesh

On the morning of April 24, 2013, the nine-story building Rana Plaza suddenly collapsed. The tragedy, which killed many workers of multiple garment factories located in the building as tenants, shook not only Bangladesh but the whole world. By using the tragedy as a lesson, the readymade garment industry that relies on developing countries for most of its manufacturing has been gathering momentum to review the safety of existing buildings.

Creating a fast-acting project by combining technical cooperation and a Japanese ODA loan

photoThe “ground zero” of Rana Plaza, where over 1,100 people were killed in a building collapse.

Bangladesh is the second-largest garment exporter in the world. Garments cover 80 percent of its export figures, and more than 4 million people, including 2.5 to 3 million women work in this sector. Improving the safety of these workers who support this key industry of the country and their work environment is an urgent issue for the future readymade garment sector.

To swiftly tackle the issue, the Japan International Cooperation Agency has launched a long-term, low interest rate finance program for seismic assessment and retrofitting work for the readymade garment business. It is the combination of an ongoing technical cooperation project, Project for Capacity Development on Natural Disaster-Resistant Techniques of Construction and Retrofitting for Public Buildings, and an already provided Japanese ODA loan Financial Sector Project for the Development of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises. Though the Rana Plaza collapse was not caused by a natural disaster, measuring buildings' quake resistance will also improve their safety.

In October 2013, five organizations, namely JICA, the Public Works Department (PWD) under the Ministry of Housing and Public Works, Bangladesh Bank (BB), the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) with some 5,000 member companies, and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) signed a memorandum of understanding to start RMG Sector Safe WorkingEnvironment Program.

To improve the safety of factories, the BGMEA and the BKMEA select readymade garment business operators among applicants for seismic retrofitting or rebuilding. Then the PWD, with assistance from JICA experts, sends technical experts to conduct seismic assessments on site and they recommend whether the building should be rebuilt or strengthened for quake-resistance. After the recommendation has been made, the readymade garment business operators can borrow low-interest funds for rebuilding and strengthening through 46 designated commercial banks in Bangladesh.

Accumulated challenges

photoAbdul Malek Sikder, project director, left, and Mafizur Rahman, deputy project manager, in the Public Works Department.

In the background of the swift launch of the finance program in response to the tragedy, there is a project on earthquake countermeasures for public buildings JICA has been implementing since 2011. Only a limited number of technical experts, mainly in the PWD, which is related to the project, can conduct seismic assessments as a premise of low-interest rated loans.

Bangladesh is a country prone to such disasters as floods and cyclones. It is also believed to have a high risk of earthquakes. However, the country has not experienced any big earthquakes since the end of the 19th century, so few of the buildings are quake-resistant. A study estimates that more than 70 percent of existing buildings would collapse in the case of an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 to 7.

In 2011, JICA and PWD started the Project for Capacity Development on Natural Disaster-Resistant Techniques of Construction and Retrofitting for Public Buildings.

"Japan has rich experience and top-level techniques in this field. We needed its cooperation," said Abdul Malek Sikder, project director at the PWD.

However, there were a heap of challenges. Among more than 5,000 buildings under the management of the PWD, records of design details only existed for a few, so project workers had to start from creating a database for each building. A Bangladeshi building code established in 1993 does not include any clause related to the seismic retrofitting. Architects are not nationally certified and appropriate structure and records to secure quality management like building permits had not been thoroughly established.

Experts in retrofitting were scarce and there were few opportunities to learn such techniques, as the country had little experience with earthquakes. So the project, along with internal training in the country, provided opportunities to dispatch staff members from the PWD and engineers to Japan to learn quake-resistant engineering.

Growing interest in quake-resistance measures

photoA retrofitting work model is demonstrated at the Public Works Department in Dhaka.

Malek was also one of the trainees who visited Japan in 2012 to learn the concepts of quake-proof structures, examples of actual application, resilience testing methods and so on.

"These techniques are also very much needed in our country. However, one big difference between Japan and Bangladesh is the awareness of the people," he said, emphasizing the importance of educating people about the risks of earthquakes.

A model of actual retrofitting work is currently on display outside the PWD building. It is expected that reaching the stage of actual retrofitting work will take some time, starting with buildings under the management of PWD, moving on to such highly public buildings as schools and hospitals, and then to private buildings and housing.

"The tragedy of Rana Plaza gave us a warning on the safety of buildings. This new loan project supported by JICA is a good opportunity for us to implement our techniques. I am also pleased to contribute to improving the working conditions of the readymade garment sector," Malek added.

Further assistance planned for safety improvement

For the moment, “RMG Sector Safe WorkingEnvironment Program” plans to select approximately 250 companies. Many companies are already interested in the program, according to the BGMEA. “To select the factories for funding, we would like to create a team of concerned parties to make highly transparent decisions. The tragedy of Rana Plaza became a big turning point for us and for the customers we export to. We will make every effort to improve safety,” Md. Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the BGMEA said.

"Since ninety-nine percent of readymade garment companies in this country are small-and medium-size and many of them rent their factories from building owners, only a limited number of the business owners can apply for this loan," said Ashraful Alam, Deputy General Manager of SME & Special Programmes Department of Bangladesh Bank. Although this project is limited to factory owners, at least the initiation of this project will stimulate the awareness of owners of readymade garment businesses about the safety of the workers.

"We at Bangladesh Bank also will consider what kind of financing is needed for improving safety. The tragedy of Rana Plaza changed the mindset of both business owners and workers. We need to support their efforts to change for the better the working environment."

To ensure the safety of the workers who support this key industry of Bangladesh, JICA will continue its assistance.

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