More Demanded From Bangladesh Reforms

Global union leaders, labor diplomats and experts said the reforms do not go far enough in meeting international standards.

While Bangladesh made some positive changes toward bolstering safety in factories in amendments to its labor laws adopted by Parliament Monday, global union leaders, labor diplomats and experts said the reforms do not go far enough in meeting international standards, judging from preliminary assessments.

This story first appeared in the July 17, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“What I hear from my unions in Bangladesh, the first comments are that there were some small improvements. This is clearly short of what the U.S. government, the European Union and the International Labor Organization, and the unions, have expected,” according to Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, the umbrella grouping that also represents Bangladesh Garment workers unions.

“This is clearly not enough,” Raina told WWD, and added that there are still details missing for the amendments to be ILO compliant.

The global union chief in May brokered a fire and safety accord with more than 70 fashion brands and retailers to improve conditions in Bangladesh’s factories. He noted the labor reforms on safety that were adopted are at least a positive step.

“Thanks to the pressure by the ILO high-level mission [to Bangladesh] in May, they got some positive things, more inspectors and some improved provisions, so they are steps forward,” Raina said.

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As of press time, some labor union groups, European Union officials, and senior ILO officers were apprehensive about making an assessment until they have a full translation and expert legal opinion of the amendments, said senior sources closely engaged in talks with Bangladesh on the reforms.

The same sources said ILO representatives met with the Bangladesh government in Dhaka Tuesday to get clarity on the legislative changes.

“We are aware of the press reports, and our representation in Bangladesh is trying to get an official copy of the law on which basis we need to give it careful study before we comment,” John Clancy, spokesman for EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, told WWD Tuesday.

The Bangladesh daily, Financial Express, reported in its Tuesday edition that according to Mikail Shipar, the Bangladesh Labor and Employment Secretary, 87 amendments were made to the Labor Act of 2006.

Speaking to some of the amendments, Shipar told the newspaper that “employees would no longer need approval from factory owners to form trade unions,” and that inspections will be mandatory when a factory is up for a license or renewal, and that all exits should be kept lock-free.

Published reports indicate that “no change can be made in the factory layout plan without the permission of factory inspectors.”

Human Right Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said Tuesday the amendments by Bangladesh “still fall far short” of meeting its obligations under core ILO standards.

It said the amendments deal with some problematic provisions of the existing laws, while leaving others untouched, and singled out that at least 30 percent of workers in an establishment would still have to join a union for the government to register it (unions had proposed 10 percent in talks with the government sources said); that unions will be allowed to select their leaders only from workers at the establishment; and that discriminatory anti-strike provisions in the law favor foreign investors by prohibiting strikes in any establishment during the first three years of operation, if it is “owned” by foreigners or is established in collaboration with foreigners.

Raina said, as things stand, Bangladesh does not meet the criteria for the ILO better factories scheme.

“This is our clear line, so we will oppose the start of that program until ILO core reforms are introduced,” he said.

Finally, according to labor union sources close to Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the amendments are not likely to have satisfied the U.S. government to take decisive action on reinstating the General System of Preferences trade benefits the administration suspended June 27.

Bangladesh has suffered multiple factory tragedies over the last 12 months, leading to the deaths of more than 1,200 people.