A coalition of industry and government agencies signed an agreement in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday to more aggressively address safety and labor issues in the country’s troubled garment industry.

This story first appeared in the July 26, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The National Tripartite Plan of Action, or NTPA, is a measure that focuses specifically on fire safety and structural integrity, both part of the critical issues looming over Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry after the recent tragedies that claimed more than 1,200 lives.

Key provisions would include regular assessment of the structural integrity and fire safety of factories, strengthen labor inspection and focus on workers and management training in addition to strengthening workers’ rights and helping with the rehabilitation of disabled workers.

“It’s a step further, especially because it’s driven from within, with the guiding hand of the International Labour Organization,” a Bangladesh Garment Manufacture and Export Association, or BGMEA, official told WWD.

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Driving it “from within” were the tripartite stakeholders — representatives of the government, employers and workers organizations. These included Mikail Shipar, secretary of the Ministry of Labor and Employment; Md. Fazlul Hoque, president, Bangladesh Employers Federation; Mohammad Hatem, first vice president, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association; Roy Ramesh Chandra, secretary general IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, or IBC, and Sukkur Mahmud, chairman, National Coordination Committee for Workers’ Education, or NCCWE. The meeting was held at the Ministry of Labor and Employment.

“We welcome this endorsement of the integrated National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity, which will be the main framework document for improving working conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh,” Srinivas B. Reddy, director of the International Labor Organization, or ILO, office in Dhaka said in a statement. “It is another important step in our progression towards improving worker safety in the RMG sector in Bangladesh.”

The ILO has been asked to assist in the implementation and coordination of the new NTPA, according to Reddy.

The plan of action would be dynamic, and would clarify the rules by setting out legislation and policy, administrative and practical activities. It would then identify the partner responsible for implementation and a time frame.

The plan has been in the making for months. It is based on both the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety in the ready-made garment sector signed on March 24 and the Joint Tripartite statement adopted on May 4.

The pressing need for action in Dhaka continues. The horror of the tragedy at Savar, where 1,129 people lost their lives after the nine-story Rana Plaza collapsed, trapping garment workers in the rubble, as well as several incidents of fire, including the one at Tazreen Fashions where 112 people died last November, continues to stir fear and panic among workers in other factories.

A high level Tripartite Committee, chaired by the secretary of the Ministry of Labor and Employment, will review, update and implement the Plan of Action, including for activities to be carried out this year and in 2014 and 2015. The ILO will support this with a three-year program on improving working conditions in the ready-made garment sector.

In an interview with the BBC this week, Reddy said that one of the important commitments “is to assess all the ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh by the end of this year. It is estimated that some 3,500 factories are there,” he said.

Separately, but also involving the ILO and the ministry of labor, was a rumble of discord, expressed at a press conference at the Dhaka Secretariat. This has been increasing since the statement by ILO on Monday that described the new Bangladesh Labour Amendment Bill passed on July 15 as “several important steps short of being in conformity with ratified international labor standards.”

Rajiuddin Ahmed Raju, minister for Labor and Employment, expressed his dissatisfaction with the ILO reaction to the amendment.

The ILO noted that a “number of restrictions to workers’ freedom of association rights, which have been the subject of ILO concerns, were not addressed by the amendments.” For example, major areas that remain to be addressed include the reduction of the 30 percent minimum membership requirement to form a union. The amendments also do not extend freedom of association and collective bargaining rights to workers in export processing zones. Some new provisions of the law, for example with respect to rights of workers who are contracted for services, and new exclusions from coverage of the labor law of certain sectors, may raise new and additional concerns about conformity with the ratified conventions, the ILO said.

Ahmed Raju said on Thursday that the government was ready to protest the ILO statement and that being a “neutral body, the ILO cannot give such statement,” especially without holding discussions with the government, the ILO’s local office or other labor organizations.

Meanwhile, safety and compensation for workers continues to be a key concern for global groups as well. To this end, IndustriALL Global Union, IndustriALL Bangladesh Council and other global allies have called for a meeting in Dhaka on Aug. 11 and 12 and will invite the companies that placed orders in the damaged factories to attend.

These include brands such as Benetton, Mango, Wal-Mart, Primark, Disney and international agent Li & Fung, all of whom had orders placed at factories located in the Rana Plaza building or at Tazreen Fashions.

“We hope that all brands associated with these disasters will make attendance at this meeting a priority,” said Liz Parker of the Clean Clothes Campaign group. “Charity projects such as training or psychological support are totally insufficient. These families need full and fair compensation so they can start to rebuild their lives in a manner of their own choosing.”

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, the estimated long-term compensation for Rana Plaza will be more $71 million and for Tazreen, $5.7 million. These figures include compensation for pain and suffering, as well as long-term loss of earnings.

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