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The Challenges of Reducing Work Hours and Enhancing Safety Compliance

By: Tanvir Alam
Mar 25

In the last three decades, the garment sector has raised to be the most important industry, in terms of exports, of Bangladesh. A relatively young industry, the speed at which it has grown is astonishing: from 384 factories employing 120 thousand people and accounting for a meager 12% of the country’s total export to 6000 factories employing around 4.2 million people and representing almost 80% of total Bangladeshi export. This makes Bangladesh one of the leading manufacturers of garments worldwide, in particular, looking at the value of its shipping (in billions of dollars) once it places itself at the second place after China (World Trade Organization, 2011).

The ready-made garments (RMG) sector has a greater potentiality than any other industry in terms of employment and foreign exchange earnings to reduce poverty and contribute to the national economy. Along with its capacity, the sector is also experiencing new challenges which can be the ultimate determinants of its sustainability. This sector also faces a lot of problems, and among all the difficulties two have become more robust to accommodate, e.g. excessive working hours and workplace safety compliance in RMG. To overcome these challenges, we need to take the number of collaborative and coordinated steps to be made from both owners and significant stakeholders to reach the ultimate goal of achieving the top position in the world apparel market.

Uncontrolled Working Hours:

Having the right workers while keeping employees happy on the job, which includes managing their hours, is a balancing act. Circumstances may dictate that one reduces working hours even for your most productive employees. This lowers one’s operating expenses and raises profits. However, it may also lead to lost sales or an exodus of employees.

Workers are indeed a critical component when mapping the stakeholders. Workers are the first actor that lives the current situation of the working conditions and the first to feel the consequences of any kind of change.

The career of a worker follows a particular path that is defined by 7 grades, for each category it corresponds a different level of wage; the different grades and increments of past 8 years are shown in the following graphical data presentation. The following figure also indicates the grades system with the evolution of real wages. Looking at the figure, we notice that in actual values, the ratio of the wage increments from 2010 to 2018. Recently 51% of wage increment has been declared for the RMG sector that dues since Dec-2018.  

After having all these, still long and unrealistic hours are no exception in the Bangladesh garment industry. Factory managers often force overtime, particularly as deadlines approach. In many cases, overtime is demanded at the last minute, and workers have no choice; anyone who protests may end up being dismissed. Long working hours with insufficient breaks often lead to health problems. Women, in particular, struggle with the demands of a stressful factory environment combined with the pressures of home life; many women garment workers are also often responsible for the household.

Factory managers typically pressure employees to work 10 to 12-hour days, and sometimes 16 to 18-hour workdays with hours increasing as order deadlines approach. Despite government regulations of the weekly rest day, a seven-day workweek is very common during peak periods although they pay in OT rate for the hours of rest day work out but, no compensatory leave usually gives to the workers. As a result of that much consecutive working days, people often get sick and the quality of work decrease too. Even, in most of the cases the lead time of the jobs bound to extend.  

Many workers are dependent on overtime pay to supplement their low wages. But many factories directly do not pay overtime wages. They do this by establishing totally unrealistic daily targets, which must be met, or they merely manipulate the time sheets.

The ILO conventions that address working hours have established a maximum of 48 hours per week plus 12 hours of overtime, and this can only be applied on a sometimes basis. That is why I think it will be better to continue pressure to emphasize that working hours are an essential part of fixing living/realistic wage for RMG workers.  

8-hour work, OT rules hardly followed. All the garments workers said that they work more than eight hours daily. Sometimes they work 13-14 hours a day. Some workers even work an extra five hours of daily OT. About one-third (33.5%) of the garments workers do not know the calculation method of OT rate. Weekly rest day and leaves not observed. Many garments workers do not have the chance to enjoy a weekly rest day. Most workers get festival leave, but employers often impose conditions to enjoy the vacation. Legal provisions on casual leave, sick leave, and annual leave are widely violated. Sometimes some employers make wage/salary deductions for the workers to enjoy weekly rest day, casual leave, sick leave and festival leave. Workers are entitled to rest and meal in a day as follows:

(i)    one-hour interval for over six hours work a day;

(ii)    half an hour interval for more than five-hour work; and

(iii)    one-hour interval once or half an hour interval twice for more than eight hours work a day.

From my personal involvement I found the following things are mostly liable to do excessive working hours in RMG:

  • Receiving extra production orders that is beyond the average capacity of the production unit
  • Brand’s sourcing teams are not distributing production orders based on capability and capacity assessment of the factories
  • Inefficient people in Industrial Engineering
  • Lack of an efficient workforce
  • Lack of suitable infrastructure and logistics
  • And unrealistic competition in the production market

Daily working hour limits are a feature of Conventions Nos. 1 and 30, both of which provide for an 8-hour limit on regular hours. Convention No. 47 and Recommendation No. 116 do not provide for daily limits, the 40-hour week is considered an adequate guarantee of a working day of 8 hours or less. Under the international standards, regular hours can be averaged within the 48-hour week, allowing the 8-hour limit to be extended to 9 hours in an industry (Convention No. 1)19 and 10 hours in commerce (Convention No. 30).

The Labor Act, 2006: as per section 100, 8-hour day is the daily work limit, but it may not exceed 10-hour day subject to the satisfaction of section 108. Also, 2 hours more can do in a day as a waiver that comes from the government in recent years.

The subsequent measures can minimize the unfairness of working hours in the long term:

  • The hiring of efficient IE to make sustainable plans 
  •  Brands should place sourcing orders based on capability and capacity assessment of factory units
  •  Implement an orderly system to follow and measure working hours
  •  Positive approach and commitment of owners of the production units

Workplace Safety Compliance:

In response to the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, Western clothing brands launched initiatives to inspect their suppliers of Bangladeshi factories and remediate violations of global electrical, fire, and structural standards. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (Accord) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance) are scheduled to end in June 2018. While significant progress has been made in the remediation of electrical and fire deficiencies, inspection data from the Accord show that about half of identified structural problems remain unsolved, including a large portion of structural repairs over two years past their deadlines. Since the brands have taken temporary responsibility for safety in much of the sector, so that, it considers policy options available to them given the near-impossibility that complete remediation will occur by the initiatives’ deadline. Recommendations for decreasing the risk of death or injury borne by Bangladeshi RMG workers are provided.

The Rana Plaza collapse resulted in three critical plans of actions to address the challenges in the sector. After 5 years of the tragedy the RMG sector is having with many good factories those are really sustainable in terms of workplace safety but, the challenges are here, from 2019 the industry is moving again to an uncertainty where no proper authority is still in place to look after and ensure the safety of workplace that had been done by Accord and Alliance in the last couple of years. Although DIFE (Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments) forms RCC (Remediation Coordination Cell for Bangladesh RMG) with the association of ILO (Better Work Project), the committee itself does not declare the procedure of enlisting the factories (new and old both) and the program of maintenance for older factories. Apparently, three following points seem an as significant impediment to carrying on the agenda: 

  •    Lack of an efficient plan of action
  •    Financial deficiency to carry on such a long-term project
  •    Unintended to get involved in the program by the factory owners

Alongside this, the good news is, a few brands and NGOs try to make effective this since the Govt itself wants to provide substantial support to the sector to make it viable. And to overcome the barriers, the following steps could be result oriented:

  • Accord and Alliance should get permitted to carry on surveillance in an extended version as long as a competent authority cannot take charge successfully
  • The Govt and the associations and the brands should play their role more proactively and arrange the way of finance or loans with a low-interest rate
  • Make aware the owners and social stakeholders about the benefits of workplace safety

After the narrations of these two challenges of RMG one thing is most indispensable to overcome and resolve the situation and that should come from all the ends is, a  “Mind Set.” 

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