Jason Ho, Manager, Advisory Services and CTI, BSR

Note: This is part of a series of BSR articles on the tragedy in Bangladesh that will look at root causes, challenges, and how to prevent it from happening again.

To most Chinese, what is happening in Bangladesh factories resembles what China has been struggling with during its period of industrialization over the past three decades.

In 1993, a fire that killed 84 workers in a Shenzhen toy factory attracted international media coverage of China’s working conditions and worker-safety issues. At that time, which preceded China’s labor, health, and safety regulations, we witnessed tragedies resulting from fire, chemical poisoning, karoshi (death by overwork), and suicides.

Since then, China has made great progress in protecting labor rights by strengthening public policy; integrating worker-protection systems into factories; increasing collaboration among western buyers, local NGOs, and suppliers; and empowering workers.

Although the absence of an effective collective bargaining mechanism and a robust labor union is being criticized by international media and labor groups, what China has done in the past 30 years can be a valuable source of lessons for Bangladesh on its journey to industrialization and urbanization.

Creating a foundation through public policy: In 1993, China was still in its second phase of economic development, so while growth and development was fast-paced, the country’s labor legislation and protection lagged far left behind.

Global anti-sweatshop campaigns in the 1990s pressured reluctant authorities to improve working conditions in China. This prompted a decade of labor compliance legislation, which brought significant regulations and directives, including the Labor Law (1995), Fire Safety Law (1998), Code of Occupational Disease Prevention (2001), and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Work Safety (2002). Special protection for juvenile workers and women were also implemented during this period. To ensure compliance—and define the responsibility of factory owners when compliance was not met—China also built a nationwide labor-monitoring system.

Although enforcement was criticized, this first wave of labor legislation helped raise the awareness of issues among workers, employers, and civil society, which built the foundation for advancing the public policy system to the next level.

By the 2000s, China was ready to move beyond defining core labor rights and began focusing on the welfare system to address the increasing imbalance of employment practices and fast economic growth. Laws during this time included the Labor Contract Law (2008), Social Insurance Law (2010), and revisions of the Fire Safety Law (2009) and Code of Occupational Disease Prevention (2012).

Building competency of practitioners: To address the gaps missed by government policy and auditors, over the past 20 years, China has pursued numerous programs funded by government, foundations, and multilateral organizations to build practitioners’ capacity in the supply chain. Programs such as the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, the University of California, Berkeley, Action-Based Health and Safety Training Project in Southern China (2005), BSR’s China Training Initiative (2004), the Labor Relations Practitioner Development Initiative (2008), EHS Academy (2008), the U.S.-China Labor Law Cooperation Project, and others have helped install qualified people on the factory floor to oversee health, safety, environmental protection, and worker engagement. These programs have created internal systems within factories that have helped elevate the Chinese supply chain to a sustainable level.

Increasing collaboration among western buyers, local government, and civil society: In the last 1990s, buyer-driven social compliance audit programs dominated the sustainability activities in Chinese supply chains, largely as a response to anti-sweatshop campaigns. Numerous and duplicative audits turned out to be inadequate in addressing emerging issues and achieving tangible outcomes.

As a result, buyers began to collaborate at the industry level to share resources in setting standards, aligning practices, creating effective tools for remediation, and building supplier databases. These partnerships also created opportunities for business leaders to talk to government and local civil society groups on a wide range of topics, such as legislation and enforcement, and to communicate buyers’ expectations on labor issues on a collective basis. BSR’s Beyond Monitoring and IDH China initiatives built this momentum to inspire cross-industry and multistakeholder collaboration in China.

Investing in worker empowerment and connections with local civil society organizations: It’s important to note that workers form the core of supply chain social and environmental initiatives. Buyers have found that investing in programs that empower workers is an effective supplement to traditional monitoring systems. These experimental pilots have included investments in workers’ professional development, life skills, and health and other well-being programs.

These programs have been enhanced when buyers have brought in local civil society groups to work with suppliers to address emerging issues along the supply chain through programs such as hotlines operated by local NGOs and community programs offering social support. These efforts have had a significant impact in Chinese factories, especially where weak labor union and collective bargaining mechanisms exist.

We have to realize that combating supply chain issues requires long-term intervention, multistakeholder engagement, innovation, determination, and commitment from buyers. If not, the intractable issues happening in Bangladesh will happen again—and may appear somewhere else.