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The Big Picture in Bangladesh From the ILO Perspective

Srinivas B. Reddy, the country director for the International Labor Organization, looks back at the last year and what lies ahead.

When Srinivas B. Reddy took over his new assignment, Bangladesh was already in the throes of the tragic aftermath of both the Tazreen fire that killed 111 workers and Rana Plaza, from which bodies were still being brought out. Here, the country director for the International Labor Organization, Bangladesh, looks back at the last year and what lies ahead.

WWD: Joining in your new post in Dhaka just a week after Rana Plaza must have been critical timing.

Srinivas B. Reddy: Well, it took some time for me to realize the enormity of the issue and then right away came the high-level visit of the assistant secretary general, Gilbert Houngbo.

I had been with ILO for more than 12 years, so I know the level of operations. But within a few days, when we had the initial interactions with the prime minister and a meeting with a number of high-profile visitors, when we entered into the negotiations phase of bringing about a level of commitment from all the national stakeholders, I realized the enormity of the issue, which has ramifications across many countries, including Bangladesh.

At that time the sector employees were in a state of bewilderment, not knowing how to react to this.

WWD: Did the solutions seem easier, looking at it from the outside?

S.B.R.: The issue was very genuine and no one knew what would happen. There was a sense that there could be so much of loss, that orders could be pulled out. And the concern on that was: What will happen to millions of workers to the economy, to the businesses, you know, billions of dollars.

There were so many questions going through our minds and not so many answers. People were worried in Bangladesh. These investments are so critical that they cannot afford to go wrong by even 5 percent. I realized that this is a major issue, which requires multipronged and several layers of interventions and that ILO could play a very significant role. This was true not just for Bangladesh, but globally. Our director general himself had prioritized Bangladesh and we all knew that this was an issue that requires attention at the highest level.

We received tremendous support from the senior management. They told me: “What do you need for us to respond to the aspirations and needs of the constituents?”

WWD: Were you prepared to handle something this complicated?

S.B.R.: I thought to myself that this is overwhelming, this is very challenging, but it’s a great opportunity to really provide services to the country, particularly the employers, workers and the government — when they need it the most. So that’s how I have taken it: as an important challenge, but also a great opportunity for the organization as a whole to really work with the constituents.

WWD: What a lot of people have been asking is: How come these types of tragedies are not happening in India or other countries so frequently?

S.B.R.: It’s certainly not specific or peculiar to Bangladesh; we’ve seen accidents happen everywhere. But what is specific to Bangladesh is that this industry has seen exponential growth in the past 30 years. The monitoring mechanism has failed to catch up with the momentum both in the government and the private sector. Therefore, while monitoring is an important element, continuing the momentum of growth and attracting more jobs and creating conditions for continuous growth have overridden the monitoring mechanisms.

WWD: Has the Rana Plaza tragedy been a wake-up call — much more than it has been in any other country?

S.B.R.: Absolutely, no doubt about that and it is a chance to set the right monitoring mechanisms in place. So that the two issues we are talking about — workplace safety, workers’ safety — are addressed in a way that the industry is sustainable; that it takes care of the workers and also ensures guarantees to international investors that this is a safe place to invest in, that they do not have to compromise their brand value and that they are assured of safety and their brand is not at risk because of working with the suppliers.

WWD: What do you see as some of the biggest changes over this year?

S.B.R.: I am hoping that the workers have started realizing that there needs to be a collective voice being heard. That was one of the major issues in Rana Plaza — if collective bargaining and representation was allowed, probably groups of representatives could have gone to the owners and told them. Workers are beginning to realize this themselves and the legislative changes that the government brought in were backed by administrative changes. The government made it possible for transparent and speedy process of registration [of unions].

What is also important is that we see the beginning of a change of attitude among employers. You can feel that. The BGMEA [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association] leadership is calling from open platforms that it is not against trade unions. We see the beginning of the change of attitude, among leadership and industry captains.

These are the three changes I see: legislative changes with administrative backup, the workers themselves feeling the need for a collective voice and the change of attitude among employers.