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Activists decry halt to Bangladesh garment safety push

Court orders watchdog created after Rana Plaza disaster to close Dhaka office

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Activists decry halt to Bangladesh garment safety push

Garment workers busy at work in a factory in Gazipur district near Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on May 2, 2013. Activists have decried a recent court ruling halting a major group overseeing a safety push in the garment industry. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

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Labor activists and a Catholic official have criticized a court ruling to close a watchdog overseeing safety and reforms in Bangladeshi garment factories.

In a ruling this month, the High Court ordered the closure of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh liaison office in capital Dhaka by Nov. 30.

The watchdog was created in the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 that led to the death of more than 1,100 people and injured more than 2,000.

The ruling was in response to a complaint filed by a Dhaka garment factory owner who allegedly refused to cooperate with the group to introduce safety measures.

Accord officials say the closure will have a detrimental effect on the apparel industry.

"The consequences of a closure of the Accord liaison office will be significant, immediate and damaging," deputy director Joris Oldenziel told Reuters on Nov. 21, adding that the group would be based in the Netherlands from now on.

"The premature shutdown of the Accord, leaving workers in unsafe circumstances, would jeopardize brands' ability to source from a safe industry."

Low wages have helped Bangladesh build the world's second-largest garment industry after China, with 4,000 factories employing about 4 million workers. The sector exports more than US$30 billion worth of clothes a year, mainly to the United States and Europe.

Babul Akhter, president of the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, sees foul play in the development.

"The Bangladesh government and garment trade bodies are not competent enough to continue safety reforms introduced by the Accord, so the move to block Accord operations has ill motives. Those behind it surely have backing from businessmen who neglect worker safety for profits, which leads to accidents in the industry and the loss of workers' lives," Akhter told ucanews.com.

Father Albert T. Rozario, adjunct adviser to the Justice and Peace Commission of Dhaka Archdiocese, expressed similar views.

"This is a bad news for the garment industry, which has had its image tarnished over a series of accidents and deaths of workers. The Accord has pushed for inspections and corrective measures in factories that owners didn't like. Now they can overlook worker safety and it would leave workers vulnerable for exploitation and accidents," Father Rozario told ucanews.com.

Bangladesh is now capable of maintaining safety measures, said Atiqul Karim Khan, a director of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).

"The government and BGMEA have improved the capacity for safety in the factories. The departure of the Accord won't have much impact on the industry," Khan told ucanews.com.

He said BGMEA had no role in moving the court petition against Accord operations.

Officials from the state-run Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments refused to comment about the issue to ucanews.com.

The Accord is a legally binding and European-dominated association of 180 high-street Western brands that source their products from Bangladeshi garment factories.

Brands include H&M, C&A and Zara that source clothes from up to 1,600 factories that employ over 2 million workers.

Since 2013, the group has invested millions of dollars to bring long overdue safety measures and reform to Bangladesh's garment industry.

The Accord has made 90 percent progress regarding safety and reforms in source factories. Although the initiative had a five-year term, the government allowed extensions until all Accord factories could be marked safe.

Another group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety dominated by North Americans and also formed in 2013, is not legally binding.

The Alliance has dozens of members including Wal-Mart, Gap and Tony Hilfiger that source clothes from 655 factories in Bangladesh. It has made 91 percent progress in safety measures.

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