Sandra Polaski: "important improvements still required in many areas"

At an ILO-EU stocktaking meeting on the Sustainability Compact for Bangladesh, ILO Deputy Director-General Sandra Polaski said that despite important progress made in terms of labour conditions, a lot of work still remains to be done.

Statement | 20 October 2014
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Sandra Polaski, ILO Deputy Director General
“A Sustainability Compact for continuous improvements in labour rights and factory safety in the Ready-Made Garment and Knitwear Industry in Bangladesh”
Brussels, 20 October 2014

Commissioner, Minister, Ambassadors and distinguished guests, I am honoured to provide the ILOs remarks on the progress made in implementing the Sustainability Compact.

Let me begin by acknowledging the considerable efforts made by the Compact partners over the past 15 months. It is clear that important advances have been made, while it is equally clear that significant improvements are still required, on an urgent basis, to advance labour rights and health and safety at work.

I would start by acknowledging the Government of Bangladesh for the amendments made to the Bangladesh Labour Act in July 2013. This represented an important first step toward bringing the labour laws of the country into conformity with minimum international standards and the needs of the workers of Bangladesh. Now we urgently require the issuance of Implementation Rules, which are essential to realization of the changes in the law and its effective enforcement. These implementation rules are also urgently required if the Better Work programme is to be launched. ILO and IFC are unable to implement the Better Work programme until these rules are published, because Better Work operates on the basis of a monitoring checklist that reflects national labour laws as well as international core labour rights. Better Work has geared up to begin monitoring, but without the implementation rules cannot do so and would have to reconsider the use of considerable resources to pay for staff it has already hired.

For all these reasons, ILO urges the Government of Bangladesh to urgently finish consultations with social partners on these rules and put them into effect, not later than December 2014.

ILO also urges the Government of Bangladesh to develop a firm timetable for further reform to bring the Bangladesh Labour Act and legislation covering the Export Processing Zones into compliance with international labour standards, particularly with regard to freedom of association and collective bargaining. It goes without saying that the ILO stands ready to assist the Government in its efforts to this end, as it has done throughout the labour law reform process up until now.

Again acknowledging efforts by the Government of Bangladesh and progress made I would point to the registration of 236 additional trade unions during 2013 and 2014. This represents a significant increase and we hope it signals increased confidence by workers to claim their fundamental rights without fear or reprisals. However, reports of harassment of union leaders remain a serious concern and we call for a robust mechanism for the speedy and transparent addressing and settlement of complaints of unfair labour practices. Rapid creation and launch of a public database that transparently reports on complaints received, their status and the resolution of these matters would bolster the credibility of Government handling of such mechanisms and would attest to their impact of the new law. We hope it can be launched within a matter of weeks or months at most.

I would also like to acknowledge the proactive and prominent role played by the other partners to the Compact. The ongoing support, active coordination and continuous monitoring of progress by the European Union and the United States, along with the ILO, are indispensable elements if we are to realize the commitments made in the Sustainability Compact, commitments that were so desperately needed.

I would also like to acknowledge the proactive and prominent role played by development partners in making this progress possible. EU, US, The governments of Canada, the Netherlands, the UK, and Norway provide significant financial support to the ILO’s technical assistance programme in Bangladesh. Together with the European Commission and US these governments have closely coordinated their support for the implementation of the Compact and we want to particularly acknowledge and thank the work of the Ambassadors of those countries for their active work on the ground over the last year. This has been an essential contribution to the important progress we have made so far.

Let me turn to the impressive headway that has been made in ensuring that each garment factory in the country is subject to a comprehensive safety inspection. At our last meeting almost 60% of establishments have now been assessed. Here I must also acknowledge the indispensable role of the non-government actors. factory owners, Global garment brands and trade unions have carried a very significant share of this heavy workload. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety have each reached their ambitious targets for initial safety inspections and have invested tens of millions of dollars in unprecedented programs of cooperation. We applaud the collaboration between these two efforts and call for even more collaboration to ensure effective remediation of dangers and risks in garment factories and the capacity building of supplier factories, trade unions and other national actors to sustain this work in years to come.

Rapid progress is now needed by the Government, the BGMEA and BKMEA to complete the inspection of the remaining factories that fall within the national initiative. ILO encourages the completion of this task before March next year to avert the risk of further injury and loss of lives.

High level political commitment by the Government and support by all national actors will be needed to drive forward the process of building a more consistent and competent regulatory framework on labour rights and workplace health and safety. In addition to needed strengthening of the Ministry of Labour and the labour inspectorate, this task also requires the effective integration of the main regulatory bodies for building and factory safety:
• the Department of Inspections of Factories and Establishments
• the Capital Development Authority (RAJUK) and
• the Fire Safety and Civil Defence Department

These institutions require intensive capacity building and sustained financial support from the national budget.

And we cannot forget that the realization of labour rights, including a safe and healthy workplace, require major further efforts by employers and capacity of building of workers and their organizations to effectively claim their rights and to develop sound industrial relations and rapid resolution of disputes.

Successive industrial accidents in the RMG sector have also exposed the weakness in systems to compensate victims. We must never forget that the catalyst for our resolve to achieve sustained improvement in working conditions in the garment industry was the collapse of Rana Plaza that caused the death of over 1100 workers and injury to thousands more. In countries with weak social protection systems, the surviving victims and the dependents of the deceased can be condemned to a lifetime in poverty. There can be no more fitting tribute to the victims of Rana Plaza than the creation of a sustainable employment accident insurance scheme in Bangladesh. The ILO stands ready to support the Government of Bangladesh to develop and implement such a system on an urgent basis. We thank the Prime Minister of Bangladesh for showing her commitment to develop such a programme with ILO’s assistance.

In the immediate case of the Rana Plaze disaster, the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee was a pragmatic and much needed ad hoc arrangement to compensate all victims and their dependents according to the principles of ILO Convention 121, which establishes agreed minimum international standards for such compensation. All those stakeholders, national and international, that developed this scheme and donated almost $20million to date, did so as an act of solidarity and compassion. ILO urgently calls for further donations to ensure that all claimants are compensated in full according to the principles of ILO Convention 121. This is vital to support the many victims of Rana Plaza who will never work again, or those dependents who suffered financial loss.

The Rana Plaza tragedy was a turning point that galvanized global public attention on the working conditions in an industry that is so vital for millions of Bangladeshi workers and the economy of Bangladesh as a whole. Government, the Compact partners, other development partners and the garment industry must do whatever it takes to avoid loss of life and occupational injuries and to ensure the core labour rights of workers now and in the future. The industry, in its efforts to establish its reputation as a fair and sustainable place to do business today and tomorrow, must show that it has properly addressed the oversights of the past. The Compact provides an ideal platform to do just that, with the support of so many partners who want Bangladesh and its industries to succeed and its workers and citizens to enjoy rising standards of living, full enjoyment of rights and an optimistic and bright future.
Thank you.