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Bangladesh Still Has Work to Do

The country has made progress in enhancing global labor standards and safety norms for garment workers but needs to do more in some areas.

GENEVA — Bangladesh has made progress in enhancing global labor standards and safety norms for the country’s four million garment workers in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza building disaster, which claimed the lives of 1,133 people, but needs to do more in some areas, said the chief of the world’s biggest industrial union.

“During 2010 and 2011, there were two local unions registered, and now, during the past 12 months, over 100 local unions were registered. So the government did what they promised, that they would ease up,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, an umbrella group that represents 50 million workers in 140 countries worldwide, including 15 million workers in the textiles and apparel sector. “In these past 12 months, 40,000 workers have been organized in more than a 100 hundred factories,” Raina, a Finnish national, and a lawyer, told WWD.

But he noted the South Asian nation still has some way to go.

“I would say Bangladesh has made some progress, but only because of the constant pressure by unions, by NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], by the U.S. government and the European Union,” he said.

“In Cambodia, union density is 60 percent, but in Bangladesh, the figure is around 2 percent. We have doubled from 1 percent to 2 percent in one year, and we will continue this organizing process,” he added.

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“In Bangladesh, even though our unions represent workers, many are not union-registered. Now this is growing. So in some years, I believe, it will be in the hundreds of thousands.”

Asked if there is pressure from some foreign investors to deter garment workers from joining labor unions, Raina said, “Some brands are clear, they are against forming unions, and some are not.”

Both the International Labor Organization, which oversees global standards, and labor union leaders, such as Raina, highlight Bangladesh needs to take further steps to address concerns related to core lLO norms.

These include the requirement that 30 percent of workers in an establishment have to join a union before it can be registered by the government, and the lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights for workers in the country’s export processing zones. At present, they can only join welfare associations.

“The 30 percent is high. It would be much better if it was much lower, like 10 percent. But in some countries, it’s even higher, like the U.S. or Turkey, where it’s 50 percent plus 1, so it’s a majority. So it’s problematic in the U.S., but you can always get bargaining rights — the employer can always voluntarily do that.”

Similarly, Raina said, “Obviously, the EPZ is one of the big problems.…It’s a question of principle, that it’s completely unnecessary. They [EPZs] create some special kind of conditions such as on taxes, but there should be no compromise on labor standards.”

There are a few hundred thousand garment workers employed in Bangladesh’s EPZs, he noted.

Raina said the increase in the minimum wage for garment workers to $67 after the 77 percent increase in December from $38 is “a good first step,” but stressed, “they need to continue with annual revisions. It’s still below a living wage.”

With regard to the Bangladesh accord on fire and building safety, in which IndustriALL was the driving force, Raina said the brands, who have signed, cover more than two million workers in more than 1,600 garment factories.

“We’re really happy we have the accord in place. We have now hired 110 building and fire inspectors — 60 from foreign companies, and 50 from Bangladesh — to do these inspections. They are now finalizing the first round of inspections until September. It’s a huge task. We already faced big problems, of course. There are dangerous factories they identify, and the brands and the factory owners have to agree case-by-case on how to fund the renovations and that, of course, creates difficulties.”