Minutes before the scheduled time for the Dhaka Apparel Summit to begin on Saturday, the grand ballroom at Pan Pacific Sonargaon hotel was packed to capacity.

With the controversial boycott of the event by global brands days earlier solved by a government decision to relent over labor arrests and reinstate workers fired in December, the one-day event appeared to be back on track to focus on sustainable industry growth.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened the summit, speaking about the need to look ahead and work together for a stronger industry, one that indirectly employs more than 40 million people. Reiterating her support for the apparel industry, she called for global brands and buyers to come forward to support factory owners in Bangladesh.

“After the Rana Plaza accident, building a risk-free and compliant RMG sector had become a great challenge for us,” she said, referring to the collapse of the eight-story building in April 2013, in which more than 1,100 workers were killed. “We have overcome the challenge with the help of all. The BGMEA [Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association], government, domestic and international organizations and development partners — all together are working toward building a safe and sustainable garment sector. The ready-made garments of Bangladesh is now a role model in the world.”

As other speakers went over some of the important milestones over the last two years, several points became clear: the need for the different segments to work more closely together, for upgraded technology and enhanced productivity — and requests to the government for stable policies and costs of doing business for the next five to 10 years. “This will bring confidence, draw more investments and will make us competitive,” said Siddiqur Rahman, president of the BGMEA.

The need for better pricing from international retailers and brands, an oft-repeated point by Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed, came up several times. It was mentioned forcibly once again by Ahmed himself. “Retailers and international communities do not talk about raising the prices of garment items. They only talk about trade unionism,” he said. “Can anybody talk about trade unions of Vietnam, China and any other country of the world?” he said, indicating his displeasure at Bangladesh being singled out for advice on trade union activity.

The controversial point about labor relations loomed over through the conference, with several calls for freedom of association and speech for workers.

More than 1,500 workers had been dismissed from garment factories in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka, in December. More than 39 arrests were made, and as global protests for their release mounted, several retailers — including H&M, Inditex, C&A, Next and Tchibo — decided to boycott the Dhaka conference.

Two days before the conference, Mujibul Haque Chunnu, state minister for Labor, said the fired workers would be reinstated and that the detained labor leaders would be released. The decision eased some of the tension and brought forth viewpoints from both sides at the summit.

In her speech, the prime minster spoke about the fact that steps were under way to build a “congenial relationship between employers and workers, ensuring legal rights of the workers and workers’ welfare-oriented programs like formation of Labor Welfare Foundation and Welfare Fund for the workers in the export-oriented industries.”

“Measures have also been taken to strengthen the Minimum Wage Commission apart from granting the right to unionize at Export Processing Zones, the amendment of labor laws and the issuance of labor rules for protecting workers’ rights,” she said., adding that a ministerial committee had been set up to take care of affairs related to the garment industry.

But global retailers, diplomats and nongovernment organizations made it clear that they were far from satisfied.

“In December, Bangladesh took a giant disappointing step backward in terms of labor rights,” U.S ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat said at the summit.

“The international community, including members of the U.S. Congress, and many international brands reacted to this stand in writing and expressed their deep concerns. Ashulia has damaged Bangladesh’s image and reputation as a reliable source for garments. Sadly, this was a poorly timed, self-inflicted wound to the industry,” she remarked, pointing out that this had been preceded by fears about fire and building safety following Tazreen Fashions Ltd. and Rana Plaza in 2012 and 2013, respectively; about political violence following the strikes in 2015, and recently terrorism after the Holey Artisan bakery attack in 2016.

Bernicat said worker management discord could threaten the significant progress the industry had made to date in building and fire safety. “Factory owners, many of whom are absent from their factories in day-to-day operations, must establish a mechanism necessary for facilitating communication by management with workers about their grievances, including their wages. But I must emphasize here, it is really about being heard and knowing that the grievances the workers are bringing to you are legitimate ones and their trust that the answers that come from you are legitimate ones. This is not a burden imposed from abroad but rather there are genuine offers to help you find solutions to labor relations challenges that can, and do occur in the work environment,” she said.

Speaking about the labor issue, Srinivas Reddy, country director, International Labour Organization Bangladesh, stated it simply. “I would like to highlight that the $28 billion Bangladesh ready-made garment industry has been created through the joint efforts of some 1,000 employers and over four million workers. This is a very important perspective that we need to recognize. This inclusive and job-rich growth has formed the foundation for much of Bangladesh’s economic and social development,” he said.

He also pointed the way ahead.

“Moving forward, we see the need for a transformative change in the relationships and partnerships upon which the industry is built. There is a need to move from a situation of mistrust between workers and employers to a high-quality partnership where they share goals and objectives. The importance of these issues has been brought into sharp focus by the recent wave of labor unrest and subsequent developments in Ashulia — the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.”

Reddy said the arrest of the union leaders and workers, closure of union offices and subsequent developments had raised serious concerns. “Given the seriousness of the situation, we are all relieved that dialogue has taken place and a tripartite agreement been reached. Moving forward, it is important that the agreement is fully implemented in letter and spirit, essentially addressing the key issues.”

Rahman presented the industry viewpoint.

“While we are trying to bring all the positive changes in the industry, trying to ensure safety and dignity of our workers, and taking better care for them, we are very disappointed about the recent events in Ashulia,” he said.

“Without any charter of demand the workers of a few factories went for an illegal strike,” he said, explaining that after a series of meetings led by the ministers the workers refrained from work for 10 days.

“At that point of time, the factories had no choice but to close operation as per the labor law. We reopened the factories on Dec. 26 as the majority of the workers wanted to go back to work. The attendance rate on the first day was 95 percent. This unlawful labor practice has caused a major setback to our ongoing journey to transformation. We are committed to ensure the well-being of our workers and respect their legitimate rights, at the same time we also expect that the workers to abide by the laws and rules of this country.”

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