NEW YORK, Dec 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Only a quarter of the thousands of factories in Bangladesh making apparel for export are protected by new industry safety programs, a report said on Thursday, leaving almost three million workers vulnerable to labour abuses and dangerous conditions.
Bangladesh's garment export industry, the world's second biggest, is in the midst of a massive safety overhaul after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013, which killed more than 1,100 workers, most of them low-paid seamstresses.
Citing improvements made after the accident, Bangladesh's government said last month that 81 percent of the garment factories supplying global retailers have been found to be safe.
According to the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, half of the more than 7,000 Bangladeshi factories that make clothing for export are suppliers working directly with global brands and subject to growing oversight.
But only half of those are covered by two major industry safety programs implemented after the 2013 accident, it said.
Left unprotected are workers at indirect suppliers that provide goods through other firms. These suppliers do not register with the government or trade associations and do not invest in basic safety procedures or equipment, the report said.
"For every facility where labour conditions are improving, there are many more factories where workers toil in conditions that present risk of serious harm and abuse of labour rights," the report said.
While the industry has fuelled Bangladesh's economic growth and driven down its rate of extreme poverty, "low wage garment work can come at almost unimaginable costs," it added.
After the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety were set up by European and North American retailers with the aim of putting into place independent inspections of the 1,900 factories supplying them.
The report found that improvements in factories subject to inspection were slow. Of the 3,425 inspections conducted by the Accord and Alliance safety programs, government or International Labour Organization, only eight factories passed final inspection, it said.
"Progress in reforming the garment sector since Rana Plaza has been halting and there is a growing sense of fatigue about ensuring that even the best direct exporters meet high standards for safety," the report said.
Part of the problem is the cost of structural, electrical and fire safety fixes to pass final inspection, the report said.
Foreign governments, development organizations, global brands and philanthropic groups have announced more than $280 million in commitments for the garment sector in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza accident, but it is not clear how the money is being spent, the report said.
"It is clear that resources are not being directed towards the thousands of indirect suppliers that remain in the shadows," it said.
The Accord and Alliance programs, designed to spend up to $100 million over five years to improve factory safety, tend to focus on direct suppliers that are large, stand-alone facilities with access to capital for improvement, it noted.
The report recommended incentives that reward factories for their transparency as well as increased inspections and prosecutions for non-compliance. It also called for better access to capital for indirect suppliers to make improvements.
The report was based on the analysis of extensive factory data and a field survey conducted in June 2015.