Labour Day

Statement by ILO Deputy Director General in Bangladesh on May Day 2013

by Mr. Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, Deputy Director General of Field Operations and Partnerships

Statement | Dhaka, Bangladesh | 01 May 2013

Mr. Houngbo,
ILO Deputy Director General of Field Operations and Partnerships
Your Excellency, Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,
Mr. Rajiuddun Ahmed Raju, M.P., Minister for Labour & Employment
Begum Monnujan Sufian, State Minister for Labour and Employment
Mr. Md. Israfil Alam, MP, Chairman Parliamentary Standing Committee for Ministry of Labour and Employment
Mr. Mikhail Shipar, Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment
President of Bangladesh Employers’ Federation Mr. Fazlul Hoque
President of Jatiya Sramik League Mr. Sukkur Mahmud
Distinguished Guests, Members of the Press and Media,
Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am honoured to be with you on this May Day. It is a day full of history and symbolism for workers’ solidarity and the struggle for decent working conditions. It has even more meaning today in Dhaka.

On behalf of the ILO, our Director General Mr. Guy Ryder and on my own behalf, I hereby express our sincere greetings to you all.

But these greetings are tempered by our shock and deep sorrow at the tragic deaths of more than 345 workers and the injuries to thousands of workers in the disaster in Savar.

Dhaka, Bangladesh and the global chain of the garment industry are still mourning the deaths of more than 100 workers in the fires accidents at Tazrin and Smart Garments.

Now we see yet again the anguish of the injured, the grief and rage of families and the procession of bodies being dragged from what people thought was a workplace but in reality it was not was.

The ILO extends its heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. We are with them in their sorrow.

We hope that they will find the strength and fortitude to deal with their irreplaceable loss. Our thoughts are with those who are injured and we trust they will be provided with all necessary assistance for their recovery.

Those responsible for the accident must face justice. Those who have suffered loss of loved ones or injury must receive full and prompt compensation.

Honourable Prime Minister, Distinguished guests, at the same time as dealing with the aftermath of the collapse of the factory, this tragedy must be a catalyst for change.

On this day of special significance in the world of work, all concerned must commit to preventing the recurrence of such avoidable tragedies by resolving to make workplace safety the top priority for action right now.

My message today is that the ILO is ready to support such action.

Distinguished Guests, the International Labour Organization, was founded in 1919 on the principle that universal and lasting peace can be achieved only if it is based on social justice. Our founders recognized that what happens in the world of work is central to the realization of social justice.

The mandate of ILO is closely linked to the spirit of May Day.

Our first Convention concerned the eight hour day, the rallying call of the first May Day rallies more than 120 years ago.

The values on which our Organization is built remain tremendously relevant to Bangladesh today as you seek a new beginning for your vitally important garment industry.

Allow me to recall the four freedoms which constitute the ILO’s global fundamental principles and rights at work:
  • Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • Freedom from discrimination in employment and occupation, 
  • Freedom from forced labour, and
  • Freedom from child labour.
These are enabling rights, the foundation for social progress and the realization of social justice. These principles are embodied in eight core ILO conventions of which Bangladesh has ratified seven.

We hope that you will soon decide to ratify the remaining Convention on the minimum age for employment.

These human rights at work enable working women and men to freely claim their fair share of the wealth they produce. They are the building blocks of policies to promote employment, social protection and social dialogue - the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda.

Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen

The young nation of Bangladesh has started down the road to decent work.

We appreciate the commitments made by the government and social partners to improve the conditions of work and welfare of the workers. The government working together with Employers and Workers Organizations and ILO support has adopted a Decent Work Country Programme for the period 2013-2015.

The Decent Work Country Programme is aligned with your country’s 6th Five Year Plan.

It aims to contribute to reducing poverty through inclusive growth and decent employment.

This includes safe and decent working conditions for millions of garment workers.

But, ladies and gentlemen, what’s the meaning and relevancy of inclusive growth or poverty reduction if it were to be achieved at the expense of hundreds of lives of ordinary citizen striving daily for earning their bread?

What’s the meaning of Export development strategy if the workers in factories have to constantly feel unsafe, if the country labor laws are not effectively enforced?

The ILO’s work in many countries around the world demonstrates that steadily improving working conditions can go hand in hand with profitable, well run and productive businesses.

There is a high road to export competitiveness that leads to inclusive growth and poverty reduction.

There is a low road to competiveness too. However it leads to the tragedies you are living with today.

Furthermore it is not a road out of poverty. It is a trap where low productivity, poor working conditions, low value-added production block social and economic progress.

The ILO’s working method involves partnerships with Government, Employers Organizations and Workers Organizations.

The Government of Bangladesh has taken important initiatives which, with continuing commitment, will contribute to achieving the goal of decent and productive work.

These include adoption of: 
  • A National Plan of Action on Child Labour; 
  • A National Labour Policy; and
  • A list of hazardous occupations from which prohibition of the employment of children is prohibited.
After the devastating fire of November 24, 2012 at Tazreen Fashions a joint statement of commitment, as well as a National Plan of action on fire safety for the ready-made garments sector, was adopted by the tripartite partners (Government, employers, and workers), with the assistance of ILO.

Despite some progress on that plan, significant challenges still remain to be addressed.

The Savar disaster demonstrates all too graphically how much more needs to be done. The ILO has called for:
  • The rapid identification of unsound factories which should then be relocated or made structurally safe;
  • Establishing credible labour inspection system and verification of building and fire safety including the integrity of electrical wiring;
  • High-level political commitment to enforcement of laws and regulations;
  • Encouragement of social dialogue on safety and health; and 
  • The urgent adoption of labour legislation guaranteeing effectively, amongst other things, rights of organization and collective bargaining in line with ILO standards.

Prime Minister, fellow guests, one of the most important means of finding ways to address your challenges in the world of work is social dialogue.

It is vital to the peaceful settlement of disputes. Workers’ safety committees are proven partners for management in tackling workplace hazards.

A further challenge is the partial coverage and application of labour laws and social protection which is still leaves the vast majority of workers in the informal economy unprotected.

Fellow guests, we must ensure that the National Plan of Action on fire safety is strengthened and fully and effectively implemented. It has to be extended to all aspects of building safety, not just fire related safety.

Improved and comprehensive labour legislation should be adopted as soon as possible with a focus on improved occupational safety and health and freedom of association. Urgent progress in these areas is needed for all workers not least those in the Garment sector.

To conclude, I thank the Honourable Prime Minister for her support for the ILO and its work in Bangladesh. I also convey our appreciation to the Honourable Minister for Labour and Employment and the Secretary of Labour and Employment and his colleagues for the good relations and cooperation that we enjoy. Not least, I thank the Bangladesh Employers Federation and the trade unions united in the National Coordination Committee for Workers’ Education for our collaboration.

On this solemn May Day, the ILO stands ready to support all constituents in building up the laws, institutions and practice of tripartism that the people of Bangladesh need to realize the goal of decent work for all. It is time to choose the high road to inclusive development in a competitive world – we want to take it with you!