Nearly three and half million Bangladesh garment workers, recently beset by industrial accidents and a staggering loss of life, will get essential support to improve working conditions, strengthen labour inspection and upgrade building and fire safety at their workplaces.
The efforts of the Government of Bangladesh and a range of national and international actors in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector have been boosted by an innovative programme of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in partnership with the governments of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, launched in New York on September 23.
“The rapid growth in Bangladesh’s garment industry has provided vital jobs to women and men and is helping to pull them and their families out of poverty. However, there is an urgent need for decisive and collaborative action to make decent work a reality. This programme will improve conditions of work, especially safety, and help generate sustainable economic growth and investment” stated the ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder.
Bangladesh has shown itself ready to work with international partners to improve working conditions in their economically-vital RMG sector. The RMG sector in Bangladesh exported goods worth US$19.3 billion for the 11 months that ended in May 2013: nearly 12% more than a year earlier.
This new multi-year programme by the ILO will focus on supporting the Bangladeshi National Action Plan for Fire and Building Safety developed in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in April of this year. The National Action Plan calls for an assessment of all active export-oriented, RMG factories in Bangladesh to be completed by 31 December 2013.
This Plan is supported by other parallel initiatives focused on the RMG sector in Bangladesh, namely the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh which was signed by over 80 leading clothing brands and retailers, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a binding five-year undertaking by North American apparel companies and retailers to improve safety in more than 500 factories.
The Netherlands, as the current co-chair of the donor coordination group in Bangladesh, strongly supports the adherence to international labour standards on workplace safety and protection of workers’ rights. This vision is also backed by business in the Netherlands and promoted through firms’ supply chains.
The Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation for the Netherlands, Lilianne Ploumen, said that “never in the history of the garment sector have we seen such an opportunity for improvement of labour conditions. With the signing of this agreement, the Netherlands with the ILO and our fellow donors will empower millions of workers in Bangladesh to live healthy and decent lives."
During the past year, the RMG industry in Bangladesh has been rocked by several major industrial accidents leading to large-scale worker protests calling for improved building and fire safety, better working conditions and higher minimum wages. These actions have resulted in work disruptions in hundreds of factories.
The Bangladeshi authorities are responding to these concerns and supporting the programme which will start with a complete fire safety and structural assessment of all active RMG factories and, where necessary, initiate remedial action. The programme also has the support of Bangladeshi employers’ organizations and unions. The government for its part is moving to significantly improve the capacity of its inspection system by equipping and training current and new recruits of the factory inspectorate and introducing oversight to address integrity and increase transparency.
Additionally, the programme will train workers, supervisors and managers in the RMG sector to improve their capacity to ensure workplace safety including the prevention of violence.
This programme is an important part of the on-going and wider framework of cooperation. For example, on 8 July 2013, the European Union, Bangladesh and the ILO signed a joint initiative entitled the “Compact for Continuous Improvements in Labour Rights and Factory Safety in the Ready-Made Garment and Knitwear Industry in Bangladesh”. The Compact aims to improve labour, health and safety conditions for workers, as well as to encourage responsible behaviour by businesses in the RMG industry in Bangladesh.
ILO Director-General Ryder has stressed the importance of bringing the various initiatives together into a “single coherent endeavour,” in order to avoid a “fragmentation of efforts”.
For factory owners and the millions of women and men whose livelihoods depend on jobs provided by the RMG sector, it is vital that dialogue among these groups is improved and that workplace conditions are consistent with international standards. These efforts are essential for the expansion of trade, the generation of better jobs and the reduction of poverty.
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Bangladesh factory conditions