WASHINGTON — The International Labor Organization intensified the pressure on the government of Bangladesh to make stronger reforms in its garment industry at a high-level “stock-taking” meeting that brought together government officials from Bangladesh, the U.S. and European Commission in Brussels.
While the ILO acknowledged that the Bangladesh government has made “important progress” on labor rights and factory safety since two factory tragedies claimed the lives of more than 1,240 people more than 18 months ago, its primary conclusion was that more work needs to be done in areas ranging from enforcing the country’s own labor laws to easing registration and establishment of unions. The meeting on Monday focused on actions outlined in the “Sustainability Compact” signed by the ILO, EC and the governments of Bangladesh and the U.S. in July 2013.
Several high-level officials were said to have discussed progress and challenges at the meeting, including Sandra Polaski, ILO deputy director-general; Laszlo Andor, EC commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion; Tofail Ahmed, commerce minister of Bangladesh; Daniel Mozena, U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, and Sandra Gallina, directorate general for trade of the EC.
The Compact committed the multistakeholder group to a number of time-bound actions, including the reform of Bangladesh labor laws to strengthen workers’ rights, particularly with respect to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining and steps to improve occupational health and safety, as well as building and fire safety in the country’s apparel industry. It also called for the recruitment of 200 Bangladesh inspectors and for the multinational retailers and brands to collaborate on establishing a unified code of conduct for factory audits.
Polaski said Monday that although “important advances” have been made by the Bangladesh government, including amendments to the Bangladesh Labor Act, the government has yet to issue rules and regulations to enforce and implement the law, according to her prepared remarks.
“ILO and [the International Finance Corp.] are unable to implement the Better Work program until these rules are published because Better Work operates on the basis of a monitoring checklist that reflects national labor laws, as well as international core labor rights,” Polaski said. “Better Work has geared up again to begin monitoring, but without the implementation rules cannot do so and would have to reconsider the use of considerable resources to pay for staff it has already hired.”
She urged the government to “urgently finish consultations with its social partners” on the rules and put them into place no later than December. Polaski also pressed the Bangladesh government to develop a “firm” timetable for further reform to the labor law and legislation covering the Export Processing zones’ compliance with international labor standards. She said the registration of 236 additional trade unions during 2013 and this year was positive, but expressed concern about continued harassment.
The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety — a consortium of 180 primarily European brands and retailers — and the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety, representing 26 major North American companies, have finished inspecting 1,700 apparel factories in Bangladesh in the past year. About 3,500 factories produce garments in Bangladesh.
Polaski commended the private sector inspections, but pressed the Bangladesh government and the country’s two main apparel trade associations to finish inspecting the remaining factories before March.
Compensation to the victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy, which killed 1,133 workers in April 2013, has been a point of contention between labor groups and retailers and brands.
Polaski praised the $20 million that has been donated to victims to date, but she also called for further donations from the industry and other stakeholders. “This is vital to support the many victims of Rana Plaza who will never work again, or those dependents who suffered financial loss,” she said.
On Tuesday, the alliance made recommendations for further improvements, including urging the Bangladesh government to address how it will regulate and enforce subcontracting in the garment industry, a pervasive problem that some labor groups and academics argue threatens to undermine progress. The alliance also pressed for a determination of whether the Bangladesh government is responsible for garment subcontractors or whether the responsibility lies with that of another entity or a private sector “actor.” It also called for a long-term plan and more coordination for factory remediation financing, as well as a plan and entity to oversee remediation for factories not managed by its teams or those of the accord.