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Slow Signs of Reform in Bangladesh

As the death toll topped 650, the calls for action continued.

The Bangladeshi government showed signs Monday that it was ready to begin enacting some reforms of its textile and apparel industry even as the outcry over working conditions, government ineptitude and loss of life continued unabated.

The proposals came as the death toll in the collapse of the eight-story apparel factory building in Savar, near Dhaka, rose to 650.

As Western governments review their trading arrangements with Bangladesh and major brands reexamine their sourcing from the country, industry organizations pressed the government to take a renewed look at wages in the sector, now at a minimum of $38 a month.

“The wages of the garment workers should increase every year at a certain percentage rationally to better their living standards,” said Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association at a meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. According to local press reports, the prime minister has asked for the development of an institutional mechanism to make this happen.

A proposal to help ensure that workers have more uniform pay hikes managed by a wage board was hailed as an important step forward. Salaries for garment workers were last revised in 2010.

Following recommendations by a International Labour Organization team that visited Bangladesh for four days last week, Islam also said a central database of industry workers, estimated to be about 3.6 million, will be set up. After the ILO recommendations it was decided that a labor law reform package be presented to parliament in June. The key measure would be that worker unions would be allowed to be institutionalized if the law was passed. Other steps forward would include adding 200 factory inspectors within the next six months and upgrading the Department of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Establishments to a full directorate with a separate budget.

RELATED STORY: ILO Formulates Plan for Worker Safety >>

Threats of suspension from the European Union’s preferred trade status led to more consternation in Dhaka on Monday.

“The government of Bangladesh must change something. Otherwise, I am ready to launch an investigation, which may lead to the suspension of Bangladesh’s trade status with the EU,” EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht reportedly told Belgian media over the weekend. The EU is Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, with annual garment exports of $8.6 billion.

This followed a statement by EU commissioners on April 30 that Bangladesh’s preferred trade status may be changed to force the government to improve trade practices.

“If they are trying to help the garment workers in Bangladesh, this is not really the way,” a senior government official, who requested anonymity, told WWD. “These are people who need the work, and with these threats they will simply be putting garment workers out of a job. What use is compassion if it takes away the livelihood of thousands of workers?”

Pressure also was increasing from the U.S. government. Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), the senior Democratic member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, went to the floor of the House on Monday to tell apparel brands and retailers they have a “moral imperative” to ensure that tragedies like the Rana Plaza building collapse and the fire at Tazreen Fashions do not happen again. He said the responsibility of improving working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry falls squarely on the shoulders of brands and retailers.

His statement in the House followed publication of a “Think Tank” column by Miller on the issue in WWD Monday.

Miller has asked the White House to convene a major meeting between U.S. and European brands and retailers, as well as Bangladeshi garment owners and respective government officials, to develop an action plan. He implored brands and retailers in his floor speech to sign onto a binding fire and building safety agreement created by an international coalition of labor and human rights groups.

“Unfortunately, these tragedies in Bangladesh are not isolated, and more of these tragedies undoubtedly will occur unless the major international corporations that keep these dangerous factories open decide to change their business practices,” Miller said. “Clearly there is a greater role for the U.S. and other governments to play, including the Bangladeshi government. However, the primary burden for action now lies with the major brands and retailers. Let’s remember what is at stake here — the lives of thousands of young women and mothers trying to scrape together an existence, working 12-hour shifts for pennies a garment.”

He said experts believe the safety agreement will only cost a dime per garment over five years to improve safety in the garment factories.

“Major global brands now face a choice — they can attempt to wait out the storm, go back to business as usual and continue their race to the bottom, or they can chart a different course that includes healthy profits without a human death toll by signing onto an enforceable safety agreement,” Miller said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney, responding to a reporter’s question in the daily briefing on Monday, publicly commented for the first time on the Rana Plaza collapse, noting that President Obama has been kept up to date on the developments in Bangladesh in his daily briefings.

“He has as part of his regular briefings been kept up to date about the tragic developments in Bangladesh and the tremendous loss of life,” Carney said. “And I know that his thoughts and prayers go to the victims of that tragedy. I don’t have specific information about some of the issues you raise that go into questions about how this happened, but he is absolutely being kept abreast of that development.”

Global labor union leaders representing apparel and retail workers on Monday called on the EU to use its power to urge brands to sign up to binding safety norms and labor standards to protect workers in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the disaster in Savar.

“The EU should use its considerable leverage to encourage brands sourcing from Bangladesh to sign up to a binding and enforceable agreement on fire and building safety, in which workers and trade unions play an active role,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the IndustriALL Global Union. “The industry’s promotion of corporate auditing to identify and remedy problems is yet again revealed as a cruel hoax, as corporate auditor [Business Social Compliance Initiative] had recently certified factories operating in the Rana Plaza building. A voluntary approach that relies merely on corporate goodwill, which has been largely absent, would be a mistake. Promotion of more corporate auditing is no solution to the problem.”

Philip Jennings, general secretary of the UNI Global Union, which organizes workers in the retail sector, said, “UNI and its affiliates are demanding that retailers around the world sign an enforceable agreement which protects workers in Bangladesh from the unacceptable dangers of fire and building hazards, and ensures these workers will have full access to the best form of health and safety protection — a union. They can’t hide from their responsibility. The time to step up to a real agreement is now.”

Sharon Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said, “New legislation that complies with ILO standards and the efficient registration of new unions will be vital to avoid future tragedies. The current labor code amendments recently passed by the (Bangladeshi) cabinet leave many issues raised by the ILO and trade unions regarding freedom of association wholly unaddressed.”

The labor leaders welcomed the joint call last week by European commissioners Catherine Ashton and De Gucht to press Bangladesh to meet international labor standards, which included the threat of EU action under the Generalized System of Preferences.

Meanwhile, compassion is being put to a test in Savar as rescue workers excavate and pull out more bodies from the wreckage. The death toll went up to 650 on Monday, after 21 more bodies were found.

A police official said it was clear from the beginning that there were about 3,200 workers in the building employed by five garment companies that were housed in it. These included New Wave Ltd, New Wave Bottoms, Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac and Ether Tex. Police officials have said that 2,437 garment workers have been rescued alive.

“There should be no surprises that there would be an approximate 760 dead. It is simple math,” he said.

Simple math doesn’t quite explain the sense of loss and horror or the scale of the tragedy, which appears to result from human error. Cracks in the building were seen the day before, and according to a preliminary government report, the collapse of the building took place soon after a generator was put on after a power outage.

As of Monday, almost 100 bodies had still not been identified. Thirty-two unclaimed bodies were buried last week, while the others are still being kept at the morgues awaiting burial.

Garment workers expressed their concern about the continuing political instability in Bangladesh, which has lead to losses and the inability to meet target deadlines and shipments. Two garment workers were killed on Sunday as Dhaka was sealed off by an Islamist pressure group. Twenty other people also died in the violence in which shops and vehicles were burnt and attacked. The rally was being held to support an antiblasphemy law.

Having lost about $500 million in export orders due to the frequent shutdowns in the country, factory owners are demanding that the government find ways to provide more stability for the sector.