Millions of Bangladeshi textile workers are falling outside the protection of international initiatives to improve labour standards in the country, according to a new report by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.
The study found that there were nearly 7,000 Bangladeshi garment factories, 65% more than previously realised. More than half of these are small and medium-sized indirect sourcing factories, most likely supplying to other, larger factories and operating mainly in the shadows.
Researchers fear that millions of workers in these subcontracting factories will not be protected by initiatives such as those that global brands and governments in North America and Europe are currently funding.
Most of these initiatives were set up in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed almost 1,200 workers in April 2013 and led to pledges of more than US$280m.
Sarah Labowitz, one of the authors of the year-long study, Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s Forgotten Apparel Workers, said: “Our research shows that indirect sourcing is an essential element of Bangladesh’s low-cost, high-volume model of garment production.
“Though global brands assert that they have strict policies against unauthorized subcontracting, in reality millions of workers at thousands of smaller factories are producing their goods.
“Working in these factories is often highly risky, yet virtually no international resources are being applied to them.”
The report examined two factory safety programmes, the Accord and the Alliance, which were initiated after the Rana Plaza tragedy.
These two well-publicised initiatives, which received funding pledges of $100m over five years to improve factory safety, were in fact covering only 27% of factories and excluded around 3m garment workers, the report found.
As a result the authors are calling on brands, Bangladeshi leaders, governments, and unions to recognise that the true cost of improving labour standards across the entire garment sector is likely to be much higher than currently estimated.
They are also calling for a plan to formalise and regulate indirect sourcing factories, and for the convening of an international task force to develop and underwrite a comprehensive roadmap for a safer and more sustainable garment sector in Bangladesh.