DHAKA, Bangladesh — Lejo Sibbel is not a man of many words. But his sense of resolution is obvious, as is his enthusiasm for the Better Work Programme for which he is senior design adviser at the International Labour Organization country office for Bangladesh.
Hailed as one of the transformative initiatives for the industry last October, Better Work was launched after the labor law package was passed by the Bangladesh Parliament. In association with the International Finance Corporation and funded by several countries, including the U.S. and Netherlands, the initiative is an ILO-driven focus on making factories more compliant and competitive.
Here, Sibbel discusses how the program is avoiding repetition with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety initiatives and about the way forward for improving work conditions in Bangladesh.
WWD: Has the Better Work Programme lost its relevance in the cacophony of initiatives in Bangladesh?
Lejo Sibbel: Not at all. If you look at the larger pieces of the puzzle, the ILO’s Ready Made Garment industry program and the Accord and Alliance, there is complementarity but there is a lot that is different as well.
The Accord and Alliance focus on structural integrity and fire safety; they don’t look at wages and hours and contracts and other aspects in occupational safety and health. More importantly, they don’t look at industrial relations at the factory level, and that is what we do.
We know this from other countries: We will find out where managers and workers are struggling in understanding certain laws, when they are not clear how they are applied in practice or how they could be applied better, so that’s the role that we play.
Better Work looks at fire safety, so there is overlap there but recently we met with Alliance (and we’ll meet with Accord), to try and make sure that there is no overlap in assessments and remediation because that’s not helpful to anybody. Some of the issues of the RMG [ready-made garment] project look at national-level issues, whereas we work at the factory level. So the law has changed, and when we go into factories, we understand what these law changes mean at the factory level.
WWD: Did the Rana Plaza tragedy push the government to do the things you needed it to do?
L.S.: If you look at it, the labor-law reform process had already been initiated even before the Tazreen Fashions fire. So we were already engaged in an ongoing process. Then [the] Tazreen Fashions fire happened. What was a very important development was that the tripartite partners agreed on the National Tripartite Plan of Action on fire safety following the Tazreen fire. That plan of action pre-dates the Rana Plaza collapse. And when that event occurred, elements of structural integrity were integrated into the already-existing tripartite agreement, to improve fire safety and also building safety (structural integrity). These processes were already in place including labor-law reform and work by the ILO in building the capacity of the Directorate of Labour, which is responsible for union registration. If you look at the rate of registration, prior to Rana Plaza, already, 20 to 30 unions had been newly registered, whereas the years before there were two or three.
So Rana Plaza accelerated the progress in some of these areas in which there was already a realization that we needed to change.
Even the Tripartite agreement was a response to Tazreen; it predates Rana Plaza, although a number of elements were added, particularly related to structural integrity of the buildings.
WWD: Are employers feeling there’s an overkill of different agencies to work with? How are they reacting?
L.S.: I’m sure they feel there’s a lot coming at them; but at the same time, Better Work has the advantage that we have been in this country engaging with the [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] and [Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association] and the government and the unions for a number of years and have included them in the design of the program. In places where we felt that an issue needed to be addressed, we asked for their input.
And in the rollout of the program, we will work with our different partners. For instance, next month we will probably start reaching out to factories to sign up with the Better Work program; we’ve already agreed with BGMEA and BKMEA that they will organize factory information meetings so we can go there with their support and say this is our program; this is how we operate; these are your rights and responsibilities; these are the benefits.
The fact that the BGMEA is organizing these meetings obviously means that they support the program, and that’s very important to try and make sure that factories understand what we are, what we do, and how we contribute to making their factories more efficient, to make sure that working conditions improve and workers’ rights are better protected.
WWD: How is the government doing in terms of actual implementation?
L.S.: After the labor-law reform, the government set out to develop implementing regulations for the amended law. So we are waiting, to some extent, for the finalization of these implementing regulations, because they determine to a large extent how these participation committees will function.
In addition, the amended law now also makes it mandatory to have labor management OSH [Occupational Safety and Health] committees, so there too we need to first find out what the law will say in this respect before we can go into factories and work with these committees. So there were a number of elements that needed to be put in place before we can start factory-level operations. Now that we have clarity on most of these, we’re still waiting for the implementing regulations; we’ve started recruiting our staff. We will then start staff induction, which is a three-month training program where we make sure that the local staff that we’ve hired are capable of doing what they need to be doing in these factories.
WWD: What will be the essence of your vehicle of change?
L.S.: All Better Work programs work with labor-management structures in factories. Where these do not exist, depending on the country, we establish them. But here you have, under the law, a mandated participation committee, which brings together labor and management: If there’s a union, the union should be involved; if there’s no union, there should be free elections. And this is mandated by law, so we will work through: This is our vehicle of change. We build the capacity of these participation committees, so they themselves — labor and management, together — are better able to communicate with each other, identify problems, resolve them — and hopefully prevent them from happening to begin with.
WWD: But what level are the local staff? Are they trainers?
L.S.: There are two categories: one, our training officers, who manage and develop training. But the bulk of our staff are what we call enterprise advisers.
These are the people who go into the factories, who work with the participation committees, the OSH committees, to build their capacity, to interact with each other and agree on what needs to be done to improve conditions based on an assessment that’s also undertaken by these enterprise advisors. And then we monitor progress, which is why we make these assessments.
To us, an assessment is a means to an end.
The baseline is: Are things getting better?