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ILO Unveils Bangladesh Program

Group to launch Better Work Bangladesh program to cover 500 garment factories.

GENEVA — The International Labor Organization is slated to give the green light on Tuesday to the launch of a Better Work program for Bangladesh that is expected to cover 500 garment factories over a three-year period, senior ILO officials said.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Gap Inc., H&M, and Inditex, which are already active in similar ILO schemes in other countries, are expected to be invited as stakeholders in the new voluntary scheme. They are normally involved via advisory forums in countries where Better Work schemes operate.

Better Work programs monitor apparel factories to ensure working and safety conditions strive to comply with global labor standards, and periodically publish detailed reports of their monitoring activities.

The move comes after two years of reservations by the ILO and global labor apparel unions because of Bangladesh’s poor track record in enforcing core international labor and safety standards. The launch of the program has been spurred by recent changes in Bangladesh’s labor and safety laws following mounting international pressure after the recent batch of industrial accidents in garment factories such as the Tazreen fire in late 2012 and the Rana Plaza building collapse which claimed the lives over 1,100 workers.

The project is to be heavily supported by the ILO and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) — the private sector arm of the World Bank which are the parent institutions that oversee Better Work schemes, covering apparel factories in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam.

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The U.S. Department of Labor is to be one of the donor supporters for the Bangladesh project, along with donor agencies from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, senior ILO officials told WWD.

The decision to push ahead came after the Better Work management made up of ILO and IFC — which also includes an advisory board with brands, unions, and end-users — formally contacted the Bangladesh government after the recent labor law reforms were passed. The two organizations expressed “some reservation about some part of the law that is not there. They would have liked to see in the law, but also emphasized if Bangladesh would do some additional reforms, we might be able to start the Better Work program,” a senior labor diplomat said.

Gilbert Houngbo, deputy ILO director-general, said the management of Better Work programs “have set different conditions [for Bangladesh] to meet and we’ve been working with them. The conditions do not mean that all the minimum standards had to be fully in place before the condition is, when the new law should be passed.”

The ILO official stressed the move does not mean the agency has eased its terms, or de-linked the importance of core standards.

“I don’t want you to think that we are diluting our position to make some kind of Better Work. No. Once it is launched, we are going to continue working with the government to make sure all the regulations are in place and this one is to go for the Better Work program as well as our other program, actually we are working on that as a joint thing,” he said.

ILO labor diplomats, talking on background, said “some of the things that we asked for in discussions with the different constituents labor unions in Bangladesh and the government and the dialogue over the labor law — the labor unions were keen for example, that they did not have to publish a list or provide a list to the employer of those workers who wanted to belong to a union — that was changed. … Now unions had asked for access to outside experts when bargaining to be supported by trade union leaders or experts. Those were two changes that were changed in the law.

“But let me make it very clear. It was not conditional by ILO and IFC that all ILO standards should be met under the law. If you think about it, there would be very few countries that can meet them,” the official added.

The ILO is calling for Bangladesh to continue to push ahead with more reforms.

“One of the things we have asked for, and the government is readily to do is to publish, is the implementation regulations for the law. This is an important point, the law is drafted in a way that requires further regulations to bring it into operational effect. Questions that relate to how workers’ representatives are established, questions that relate to the establishment of occupational and safety committees that the law now provides for, these are obviously important for the garment industry,” added another top ILO official.

The country is still operating on the 1977 regulations. There’s a need to upgrade those, the official said, adding the target is for Bangladesh to usher in the necessary regulations for inspections by the end of November.

“That would need to happen before Better Work could clearly say inspectors of ours would go to factories,” Daniel Rees, the global labor agency’s top official who oversees the coordination of the the Better Work programs, said Sunday.

“We consider ourselves opening for business, we’ll be recruiting staff, as soon as possible, we trust that the government will publish the implementation regulations. We need them to do so before we can get into factories. We’ll be recruiting staff in what will be a fairly sizable program, so we’ll be scaling up quite quickly, and we intend to have people trained and able to do the job by the second quarter of next year,” he said.

The Better Work program is expected to be one of the initiatives to be launched Tuesday in Dhaka by Houngbo as part of the ILO effort to improve working conditions in the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh.