Working conditions

Bangladesh 2013-The Rising Demand for Labour Standards: statement by Ms Maria Helena André, Director ILO Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV)

Statement by Ms. Maria Helena André at the opening session of the Panel Discussion on Bangladesh 2013-The Rising Demand for Labour Standards, at ILO-Geneva

Statement | Geneva | 30 October 2013
Six months ago Ms Rikta Begum was one of those lucky ones who survived the Rana Plaza building accident. More than 1,100 people were killed when the eight-storey clothing factory collapsed on the outskirts of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka. Many of those who survived were seriously injured and have not been able to go back to work. Rikta Begum is one of them. Her right arm had to be amputated after it was trapped when the building fell. Half an year on, she has little hope for her future prospects. She has no job, she cannot do most of the work that she used to do without any thoughts like washing her clothes, doing household work and eating. Such are the stories of many Bangladesh garment factory workers who have been victims of unsafe buildings and poor safety and health working conditions. They have been disabled and many have lost any perspective for future.

The accidents caused much publicity amongst the international community. Many consumers who bought goods made in Bangladesh were aghast with the horror that was played out in the television all over the world. The international brands who had contracted companies in Bangladesh for the production of their clothes immediately reacted to provide money and support and they wanted to be seen as doing something to improve the safety and working conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh. We welcome the ACCORD as it can help shape the changes.

We ask ourselves whether is this what is needed to provide safe and healthy working conditions? Are these actions sustainable or does sustainability comes from measures taken based on International Labour Standards? And who is responsible to provide such safe and healthy working conditions?

In my view the responsibility lays with all of us-the factory owners, the Bangladesh government, the unions, and the international community-the consumers, the brands, the ILO. In order to change the situation we all have a role to play but different roles by the various groups and complementing each other.

The role of ILO is significant and important in a globalised world. It is probably the main player being an international organisation whose main objective is to ensure social justice to all. It is mandated to create that environment in country, based on its labour standards, the law and practise for workers and employers to interact, negotiate and, based on social dialogue establish negotiated wages and working conditions. The government being a member of the ILO is obliged because they have agreed and signed on the ILS, to provide for such an environment. They have to respect the labour standards. Respect for labour standards will only provide that long term sustainability in industrial relations and it will contribute to economic growth. Measures based on corporate social responsibility can only add to what is established by the ILS and in no ways it has proven that CSR could replace ILS. CSR cannot replace ILS.

That is why I argue the need for the respect for and the enforcement of the ILS and Bangladesh government should immediately bring its law and practise in line with ILS. It should amend its laws to guarantee union rights.

The Garment sector is not organised. There is no presence of unions. Out of a total of about 4000 enterprises where some four and half million workers are employed, only about 40-50 enterprises have presence of unions and that also many are not functioning. There are no collective agreements signed. The main cause is the anti-worker and anti-union legislation. The unions have called for the improvement of the laws as it has been the repeated recommendations made by the ILO Supervisory mechanism, the Committee of Experts and the Committee of Freedom of Association.

With increasing calls made by the ILO and in the face of the growing anti-Bangladesh attitude of the international community due to the building collapses and factory fires the Government in June this year revised the 2006 labour laws. However to the disappointment of many particularly the unions in Bangladesh the new laws are in many ways worst then before. The only provision withdrawn from the previous law was the practise where the Ministry of Labour, upon receipt of an application for the registration of union provided the list of union officials to the employer concerned.

The laws still remain very restrictive. In a letter to the Prime Minister the unions have said that they were utterly dissatisfied, irritated and frustrated by the amended laws. Some of the specific laws that restrict the organisation of unions include:
  • the requirement of 30% of the workers to be members of unions before a union could apply for registration. The unions claim that there are enterprises which have 20-30 thousand workers and any effort to try to register unions in these enterprises would not only be difficult but simply impossible
  • the provisions of the law exclude many sectors of workers including agriculture workers, some public sector employees, domestic workers and others.
  • outside union officials are not allowed to be involved or stand for positions in private enterprises. The unions claim that it will be impossible for employees in garment enterprises to organise themselves as many are from the rural areas, young and mostly women and who have very little formal education. There is no possibility for them to know about unions and to take up any efforts to organise themselves.
  • the unions claim that the new provision to set up worker participatory committees is a recipe to establish employer sponsored “yellow unions”.
  • there are other pieces of laws against workers like the new definition of supervisors who cannot join unions; the wide definition of disciplinary action that could be used for victimising workers; the employer right to terminate workers with no recourse; etc.

Then there is the special labour laws enacted earlier that applies only in the export processing zones (EPZ) where only workers welfare associations can be established. These are not unions.

The ILO should use its tripartism tool in a more strategic way both in the house (ACTRAV and ACT/EMP) and the tripartite governance structure.

The Government has ratified both Convention numbers 87 and 98. All the unions and the ILO and international union movement is asking that the Government to respect what they have agreed to in terms of these international protocols. It is obligatory on the ILO Governance including the member states and the employer and worker social partners to ask the Bangladesh government that they follow the rules of the organisation they are members of- it is not asking much! At the same time the Office should take the steps to ensure that these obligations are followed.

While ILO can be part of the many other efforts being taken like for example the Accord and other international efforts, the ILO focus should be based on its mandate and the enforcement of the ILS and the obligation by the Government to bring the law and practise in line with the ILS.

The political will of the Government and the technical support by the ILO can achieve can make the necessary changes. It is good for the country, the business in Bangladesh and the workers. It will contribute to national development, reduce poverty and foster social justice in the community.

Bangladesh garment industry is a US$20 billion business but the almost 5 million workers toll in these factories for a meagre US$38 per month which is about 15 cents an hour!!. This need to change. Only by providing the right of workers to organise themselves and their ability to be able to negotiate on wages and safe working conditions can bring about these change! The union movement in Bangladesh need to be strengthened. It is not a sectoral issue. The changes to the law can only be done by a united trade union movement and ILO and others should work with all national trade union organisations who have grouped together under the banner of SKOP.

I conclude that Bangladesh needs labour standards if we care for economic growth and the promotion of social justice in that country.

Finally let me quote Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly- former Judge of the Supreme Court of India (Speaking at an ILO ACTRAV Trade Union seminar in Delhi in September, 2013., “With the growth of Corporate restructuring in the wake of globalisation, it has to be remembered that exploitation of labour anywhere in the world undermines the right of all workers around the world and still today trade unions are the only bodies to ensure the equitable distribution of the fruits of the economic growth and it is the safest tool for economic justice-a professed value of Constitutionalism across all democratic countries in the world.”

Thank you!