GENEVA — Bangladesh needs to move fast to improve the harsh working conditions in the country’s garment sector, including health and safety, trade union rights and raising low wages — or it risks losing its main source of export growth, an International Labor Organization report warned.
“The severity and frequency of industrial accidents in the sector have increased to the point that it may be acting as a deterrent to international buyers and investors,” concluded the ILO report.
The study highlighted that the Tazreen Fashions factory fire in November 2012 that killed 112 workers and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in April that killed 1,132 workers have spurred the government to take some concrete action in the last six months to address the dire health and safety issues under mounting international pressure from governments, the ILO, and international buyers and labor unions.
“The government, industry and national trade unions will need to work closely with the international enterprises to ensure that Bangladesh remains a viable place to do business, while protecting worker safety,” said the report, called “Bangladesh: Seeking Better Employment Conditions for Better Socioeconomic Outcomes.”
RELATED STORY: Bangladesh Factory Audits Stir Calls for More Action >>
The report said in the last 20 years, “Bangladesh established factories and manufacturing sites without following building and safety codes and the government of Bangladesh has not provided adequate regulatory oversight and enforcement.”
The assessment of senior ILO officials is that after months of concerted efforts, changes are under way for the better.
Gilbert Houngbo, ILO deputy director-general, said Monday, “You can feel there is a momentum, quite frankly, that is quite different to what I saw six months ago.”
He told a news conference there are about 3,500 active garment factories in Bangladesh and pointed out that the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh signed by international retailers and trade unions is slated to inspect 1,500 factories, the North American-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety about 500 factories, and 1,500 factories to be inspected by the national action program the ILO has launched.
The ILO accord calls for the appointment of 200 labor and factory inspectors to be appointed by the end of this year and an additional 800 in 2014. Houngbo told WWD the ILO is hiring about 100 engineers this year specifically for the factory inspections. With regards to wages, the ILO report notes that Bangladesh garment workers “earn some of the lowest in the region.
“As of August 2013, the monthly minimum wage for entry-level workers in the garment sector was $39 per month, about half of the applicable rate in other major garment exporting countries such as Cambodia ($80), India ($71) Pakistan ($79) Sri Lanka ($73) and Vietnam ($78),” it said.
Houngbo noted that Bangladesh’s minimum wage board recently proposed $68, but that is not in force yet.