DHAKA, Bangladesh — On May 1 last year, soon after the collapse of Rana Plaza, Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo led a high-level delegation to Dhaka. Houngbo said that the country needed a permanent social dialogue and, following the visit, the tripartite agreement was unveiled, along with the labor law package to be passed by Parliament, inspections of factories and the hiring of 200 inspectors by the government within six months.
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Returning a little less than a year later, Houngbo was greeted by many of the stakeholders as a “friend to Bangladesh.” Houngbo, who is deputy director general of the International Labor Organization, told WWD that things were progressing, a clear change in mind-set being one of the driving factors.
Here, he talks about the changes in the last year, and what more needs to be done:
WWD: Did you return to Dhaka with a sense of apprehension about the process of change that you started last May?
Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo: There has been a lot of change. A lot has been done. I think for me, I will start with the change of mind-set. Last year, I was not convinced that all the stakeholders had the sense of urgency — not in dealing with the crisis, but dealing with the matters that needed to be addressed. But now I have to say that this is clearly changed. The sense of urgency in all quarters, the political will, the social will, etc.
Then the second thing that I will mention is that the second milestone is that a year ago the actions that were taken have had a different degree of success than others but overall, yes, there has been — after the new law has been passed — 140 new trade unions created in the last nine months compared to roughly 128 that existed in the past 20 to 30 years. We are talking about the appointment of 67 new inspectors and the upgrading of inspection levels. This is well below the expected 200, but they are working on that. The factory inspection for health and safety dimensions, right now more or less 1,000 factories have been inspected and there are more or less 2,500 more to go and they are working on a new draft amendment on the export promotion zone dimension. So from all of that, we can see there are very concrete actual steps that are being taken in the right direction.
The challenge now is to keep up that momentum.
WWD: Would you say this has been one of the biggest successes of ILO in the last five years?
G.F.H.: Quite frankly, ILO has had other successes at the same level or higher than this. But clearly I don’t want to see this as a success or not for ILO but rather as a level of engagement not only for ILO but for a lot of international stakeholders.
It has been quite important to see how many stakeholders from around the world who have demonstrated their keen interest in assisting in dealing with the many issues raised by the Rana Plaza collapse. ILO has done the best that it can and will continue to do so, but I don’t want it to be down to ILO’s success or not. We really have to look at it as the difference we are making to people’s lives and the ability to enable everyone around the table to face the challenges.
WWD: Is it an extraordinary amount of pressure for you and your team to handle because of the international attention?
G.F.H.: For us, it is a great challenge on a daily basis. Obviously we have to set up special teams and take special measures, first of all ourselves, but also bilaterally help in financing the project, the Dutch, the Netherlands, Norway, the U.S., Sweden and others that inform the activity of this project. It is clearly a challenge, but one for which we roll up our sleeves and make sure on a daily, weekly basis that we don’t miss the time that passes.
WWD: Is there a special message that you bring to the workers, and to the employers as well as they are equally struck by the situation, in 2014?
G.F.H.: The best tribute we can make to those who lost their lives is to make sure that the economic order can sustain, can even grow, without jeopardizing safety and healthy issues. I’m very clear about that and we all have to work in that direction.
The second point is that we have to also, all of us, the workers and the employers, behave in a different way, in the context of much more trade unions, in the context of workers who start to exercise their rights and the freedom of association and collective bargaining, in context where safety is taken seriously, and looking at the fact that we know very well that 80 percent of workers in the sector are women.
The third point, we also need to continue to work with the authorities to have an effective work place injury insurance scheme. We don’t wish to see this situation happen again, but in the case it does, there should be an effective existing injury insurance scheme that can deal with the compensation.
WWD: Are you satisfied with the wage board that finally went through in November?
G.F.H.: At ILO we were expecting it to be higher than what it has been, but we have to accept, we have to recognize it that it is close to a 70 percent increase. The wage board needs to stay active, do research and analysis on a continuing basis and to be partners between workers and employers to provide thought and make an adjustment as and when required.
WWD: At this time, what do brands and retailers need to be more vigilant about?
G.F.H.: The first thing is that they need to step up, more than they have done right now, in terms of assisting and compensating those who lost their lives and those who survived with injuries and loss of parts of their bodies, etc. The issue of compensation is an important one; I honestly believe that international buyers should do more than what they have done so far.
Secondly, I know that the international buyers have been responding and they need to continue to keep up the global momentum both of international and national actors to keep up the ongoing change in the sector.
WWD: Has the media attention been over the top or has it been helpful?
G.F.H.: Thank you for raising this point — the media has been very helpful. When we take a step back, I am fervently of the opinion the whole public relation has been played through the social forum of the media. It has been very relevant and decisive. I have to recognize that the media has played an important role and I hope it will continue to play that role.