Q&A: The Union View on Bangladesh

Roy Ramesh Chandra discusses the changes that have taken place in the industry since the tragedy and what lies ahead.

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Roy Ramesh Chandra is secretary general of the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, president of the United Federation of Garment Workers and a substitute member of the governing body of the Industrial Labor Organization. His voice is being heard in several quarters of Dhaka, not least by the workers and on a broader platform by the many different stakeholders that have come together in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy.

Here, Chandra discusses the changes that have taken place in the industry since the tragedy, and what lies ahead:

WWD: Looking back at this year after Rana Plaza in which there have been many changes, do you feel a sense of satisfaction, or frustration?
Roy Ramesh Chandra:
That is a difficult one. There have been some improvements. First, the minimum wage has been increased 77 percent, the labor law has been amended, the Accord, the Alliance and the National Tripartite plan of action are doing inspections to determine shortcomings in terms of structural safety and fire and electrical safety. So these are improvements. Although these are a bit slow, we need to have them speed up and pick up momentum. At the same time, we need to bear in mind that things cannot change overnight. This is a reality in our part of the country; things takes time.

If you see the accident of Triangle factory in New York in 1911, it took four years after to bring about change. So, we from the Accord have a five-year project window to make a change. There are some groups that are campaigning that change should be seen in one year — it cannot.

You have to locate the problems, you have to find the solutions for these and the financial involvement is also an important part for it. It all takes some time and commitment.

WWD: Many workers and factory owners were worried about a flight of orders from Bangladesh. Are they now reassured?
You know people have a very short collective memory. Last year after Rana Plaza there was so much critique of Bangladesh. In some stores they had placards saying, “We don’t sell products made in Bangladesh.” At that time, IndustriALL and the IndustriALL Bangladesh council raised their voice and asked for support for Bangladesh.

We have seen that signpost has been dropped and the brands have remained engaged with Bangladesh. They have come forward with legally binding agreements to make the Bangladesh industry sustainable. I would now say to my industry friends: “Nothing to be worried about, nothing to be tense.” We, from the trade unions, don’t want that a single factory should shut down. We don’t want that a single worker should lose their job. Rather, we want to make a safe and sustainable garment industry and want to protect and nurture the industry in Bangladesh.

WWD: Are you putting pressure on local manufacturers as well and how are they reacting?
We are also willing to extend all our cooperation to manufacturers, but they need to understand that if they need to continue their business in the global market, they have to address global concerns.

Sometimes their public statements are rather embarrassing. But in the field they are quite cooperative. The government and BGMEA [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] are cooperating with the Accord team, otherwise it would be very difficult to continue inspections.

WWD: Many of the factory owners are afraid of trade unions as well as of the price that needs to be paid for remediation.
But with trade unions we are making sure that brands will pay for the inspections; brands will pay a significant amount for the remediation as well. How the brands will pay, the inspection and deep-driving inspection will be paid by brands.

For remediation, we have three options: first, the brands should support through business transactions by increasing the volume of business; second, by providing a soft loan, or by cash incentive or joint venture.
Also there is a guarantee that brands will not pull out their business. This is something that the manufacturers should understand. It is a challenge, undoubtedly, but it also should open a window of opportunity.

WWD: You have earlier mentioned a permanent safety net for workers. How would that work?
A series of accidents has happened, thousands of workers have died and got injured and their compensation is always made on an ad hoc business. Now the time has come for a permanent safety net for the workers. My proposal is that each manufacturer or owner of a garment factory needs to contribute to a Bangladeshi Garment Workers Welfare trust where manufacturers will pay five taka [6 cents at current exchange] per worker a month. The government will pay the same amount, which will be matched by the worker’s own payment. I am asking brands to pay 10 cents only per apparel [item] to the fund. This fund will be monitored by a trustee board, taking representatives from all the stakeholders who are contributing. Detailed rules can be decided through discussion.

WWD: Do you feel the multiple stakeholders who convene in Dhaka have kept their focus?
There have been a lot of meetings, workshops and concern at both the local and global level, but unfortunately the victims have not received the proper compensation yet and they are passing through a hard life, some of them are starving, some of them who are not getting proper treatment can be permanently disabled.

We have a multistakeholder committee chaired by ILO, with representatives of brands, of Clean Clothes Campaign, the government, the BGMEA, BEF and IndustriALL Bangladesh Council there. Yet we are having the most tremendous issues with regards to compensation of worker.

Compensation is the right of the workers and the brands sourcing from factories have a moral and social obligation.

WWD: As a trade union leader do you feel threatened as you raise your voice on all these issues?
Yeah, I face threats sometimes from the industry, from the government as well. But I am not afraid of that because I stand for the genuine cause of the workers. And in the end, everyone will acknowledge that I am working to protect the industry, to protect the interests of the country and the interests of the workers. It is co-related. You know a healthy, sound worker is a precondition for the sustainable development of the industry.