Garrett D. Brown, MPH, CIH, FAIHA, recently retired from a 20-year career with Cal/OSHA, where he worked as a compliance officer for 18 years and as special assistant to the chief of the division for the last two and a half years. Since 1993, Brown has been the volunteer coordinator of the
Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network
, a volunteer network of approximately 300 occupational health and safety professionals that provides information, technical assistance, and training to community-based worker organizations around the world. Brown has directed health and safety capacity-building projects with grassroots worker organizations in Mexico, Central America, Indonesia, China, and now Bangladesh. Two of the worst workplace disasters in the history of the garment industry have occurred since 2012 in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In December 2012, a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory killed 112 workers. Four months later, in April 2013, the structural failure and collapse of a building in Dhaka’s Rana Plaza killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured 2,500 others. Brown, a member of AIHA’s Social Concerns and International Affairs Committees, is helping establish a workplace health and safety “train-the-trainer” program in Bangladesh with the OHS Initiative for Workers and Communities, a joint effort of six leading non-governmental organizations in Dhaka. The Synergist: Where does the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network fit in to the response to the Rana Plaza collapse?
Garrett Brown:
The Rana Plaza moment in Bangladesh was a shock heard around the world because of the deaths of almost 1,200 garment workers in one fell swoop. In Bangladesh, there’s been quite an international response to health and safety, but, as we know in our profession, there are three main actors in health and safety in any workplace situation: one is the government, second is the employer, and third is the workers. Our network’s experience over the last 20 years has been that governments and employers generally have resources available to them to protect workers, but it’s a question of political will more than actual resources. Governments and employers generally are included in most OHS projects, whereas workers are generally left out in the cold by many initiatives, and unfortunately that’s also generally true in Bangladesh today. There have been a lot of resources devoted toward improving the government’s regulatory capacity, their reach in terms of enforcement, inspections, and the requirements of national regulations to begin with. There have been a lot of efforts to improve the capacity of employer organizations, particularly small and medium employer organizations in the arena of health and safety, but relatively little activity devoted toward building the OHS capacity of worker organizations. However, the International Labor Organization, a UN organization, has spent a lot of money trying to do some train-the-trainer and training outreach to worker organizations. Other efforts are underway, with fewer resources and on a smaller scale. Over the last two years, the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network has been working with community-based and worker organizations in Bangladesh—as we have elsewhere in the world—to build the OHS capacity of those organizations. We are working with six NGOs in Dhaka, Bangladesh, three of which are labor organizations. The fourth is a leading women’s organization, the fifth is a major public health organization, and the sixth is one of the few occupational safety and health nongovernmental organizations in Bangladesh. These six organizations are already doing a lot of worker education and training on everything but occupational safety and health because there’s just not a lot of capacity in Bangladesh on OHS issues. The point of our project, which is actually about to get underway this fall, is to expand the repertoire of these six key NGOs in Dhaka precisely on the issue of occupational safety and health. Our goal is to take their experienced and skilled trainers, who are doing great worker education on a wide variety of topics, and expand their training subjects to include OHS issues by having a train-the-trainer program on basic OHS information that the trainers for these six organizations can then share at a grassroots level with their members and others in the community. We’re calling this project the “OHS Initiative for Workers and Community.” It’s just a small piece of the puzzle, but I think it’s a useful one because the worker part of the equation is not really getting the attention it deserves. It comes at an appropriate moment because one of the changes in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza collapse is that now all factories with more than 50 workers—which includes most garment factories in Bangladesh—are required to have joint labor-management health and safety committees. It’ll be very important for worker members of these health and safety committees to have some basic information about general OHS concepts, hazards, controls, their legal rights, and how to go about exercising those rights. Our network’s goal is always to increase the capacity of worker organizations—in whatever form they make take—to understand basic OHS concepts, to provide those organizations with whatever technical assistance they request, and to assist them to exercise their rights under both national and international laws to have safe and healthful workplaces. TS: What other OHS-related projects are ongoing or forthcoming in Bangladesh? GB: There are two big private-sector initiatives. One is the Bangladesh Accord, which involves about 217 international clothing brands in a legally binding agreement with two global unions that are based in Europe but have affiliates in Bangladesh. This binding agreement under the Accord has led to the first ever genuinely independent and competent inspections of any global supply chain—in this case, the garment supply chain in Bangladesh, which is number two in the world behind China in terms of apparel exports. The second initiative is called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is more of your standard corporate social responsibility, management-only initiatives involving about 26 companies in North America. The Alliance has basically had to match what the Accord is doing, so that’s led to some positive developments. And then, as I mentioned, the International Labor Organization has spent around $190 million in Bangladesh since Rana Plaza trying to increase the capacity of the Bangladesh government—which unfortunately is one of the most corrupt governments in the world—to take worker health and safety issues seriously and have the capacity to enforce their own regulations. So it’s kind of a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. The really important thing in Bangladesh is that there have been 3,700 garment factories that have been inspecte
d by one or another of the initiatives. They’ve generated a list of more than 150,000 safety hazards in these factories, which gives you an idea of where they were at to begin with. Now the big challenge is to correct those hazards. Unfortunately, the international clothing brands have not stepped up to the plate to meet their responsibilities in the supply chain to make sure that these corrections are completed, which is a big problem. That’s the step backwards. In addition, the requirement now to have factory health and safety committees represents a challenge because there’s no history of such activity in Bangladesh, and very little training or knowledge of what to do in such a committee among either management and workers. But it’s also an opportunity because, again, it’s the first time in any supply chain in the world where real attention is being paid to workplace health and safety.
Editor's note: This article is part of a new Synergist series called “Pole to Pole.” Exclusive to the digital magazine, this series focuses on the challenges of practicing industrial and occupational hygiene around the world. Each month, the digital Synergist will feature an edited Q&A based on an interview with an industrial hygienist about how the IH/OH profession differs from country to country. The
previous installment
of “Pole to Pole” features AIHA member William S. (Bill) Carter, who discussed IH in Nepal. This month, the series focuses on Bangladesh.
Pole to Pole:
An Interview with Garrett D. Brown