Mikail Shipar, Bangladesh secretary for labor, has been in the hot seat as issues with workers have been in the forefront over the year. There have been countless worker protests and rallies during that time, and after Rana Plaza many new introductions on the labor front, including a wage hike and an amendment of the Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006.
Here, Shipar discusses the changes.
WWD: On the anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza, it’s a sad day for labor in Bangladesh and all over the world.
Mikail Shipar: It is a difficult time for all of us and I pay my respect to the deceased. Since then, we have been working very hard to improve the overall workplace, safety and compliance issues. The Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006 was amended to ensure workers welfare, rights and safety and to promote trade unionism and collective bargaining. The trade union registration has got some momentum after this — in the last year a total of 140 new trade unions have been registered in the garment sector, and the ILO has started a training program for the office bearers of these newly formed unions.
The minimum wage was increased in November from $38 to $68 [a month], which is 76 percent more.
WWD: Do you feel that the issues related to labor in Bangladesh are now at a turning point?
M.S.: We are certainly at a turning point regarding labor issues. We have 30 years of experience in this sector and we have four million workers. The entrepreneurs and trade union organizations, the international brands and buyers, the development partners have always been with us to support our initiative for the development of our industrial sector.
WWD: Have all the bodies been identified so far and how has the issue of their financial needs been handled?
M.S.: A total of 2,438 people alive and 1,117 deceased were rescued with efficient management after the prime minister deployed one infantry division of the army for the rescue operation. The process of identification is still going on. There were 311 unidentified bodies, of which 206 have been identified with DNA tests. Results from the remaining are still awaited. The prime minister’s fund has disbursed an approximate $3 million that were spent on the treatment of the injured workers in different hospitals. The total of 962 deceased workers and 36 workers who lost limbs were given a total of $2.47 million.
A Global Trust Fund has been established with the help of brands and buyers under the neutral chair of ILO. Until now, $15 million has been deposited in this fund and distribution to the 3,600 victims of Rana Plaza have started.
WWD: Isn’t there a need to expedite the hiring of the 200 inspectors for factories?
M.S.: We have just formed a Directorate of Inspection for Factories and Establishments on Feb. 15, so they have an expansion of power. We already have recruited 67 inspectors and our commitment is for an additional 200 inspectors. I hope this is possible within a month. Everyone is asking why don’t you recruit 200 inspectors? But this is not an NGO [nongovernmental orgazination] post. I have to create posts. Creating posts in a country like Bangladesh is very difficult where you need permission from the ministry of law, of public administration, etc.
Earlier we only had a staff of 314, including all staff for this as it has become a separate department. Now it has become 993. Earlier the directorate was a Class 3 officer and now since he is a director — he has more moral courage to handle the entrepreneurs as he is an Inspector General at an additional secretary level. The implementation of law is very crucial and for that reason we are making special emphasis on implementation of law.
WWD: How are you handling the panic that ensues from the closing of factories that are being found to be structurally unsound?
M.S.: Sometimes closing of the factory becomes a new crisis. The workers are asking for three months’ salary. This has become chaos. But at present, from the government side,we don’t want to see another mini Rana Plaza again. If there is no structural integrity in the factory, it has to close down.
WWD: Are there differences between the accord and alliance that are affecting the factory inspections?
M.S.: There are minor differences. We have covered six buildings and 16 factories. Most of them are suggested by the accord people but unfortunately the accord is not providing any money for my workers. The alliance is willing to do more inspections but if alliance and accord buyers are in the same factory, the accord is trying to overshoot on them that, “We will inspect this factory.” For this reason there is small controversy. But it should not be controversial. Especially the alliance — they are more proactive than the accord at present because they have committed to us that if a factory closes, they will pay minimum half of the workers’ salary of two months, which the accord has not yet decided. Another thing with the accord: there are two international trade unions with them. They are also affecting their decisions but they should come up with a positive attitude for my workers.