Bangladesh has largely failed to implement its commitments towards widespread reforms on protection of labour rights, fire and building safety and corporate responsibility as stipulated in the Sustainability Compact, three global trade unions said.
In July last year, the country signed the time-bound agreement with the EU and the International Labour Organisation to improve labour, health and safety conditions for workers as well as to encourage responsible behaviour by businesses in the garment sector. Later, the US also joined in the Compact.
Bangladesh's progress was insignificant despite substantial financial and technical support from a number of foreign governments and the ILO, said IndustriALL Global Union, UNIO Global Union and ITUC in a joint statement after a review of one year.
“We remain determined to make this industry safe and sustainable but we need to see more action from the government, with the rights to freedom of association upheld,” IndustriALL's General Secretary Jyrki Raina said.
The unions said the inability of workers to organise and bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of work meant that gains in building and fire safety would not be sustainable, leading to further tragedies.
Alarmingly, the attitude of the government towards unions seems to be only deteriorating, according to the statement issued last week.
"In June, IndustriALL's general secretary, Jyrki Raina, wrote to the Bangladesh Prime Minister criticising incendiary remarks made by his Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed."
The minister had attacked trade union leaders for allegedly providing foreign governments with information criticising the labour situation in Bangladesh, and threatened to take steps against them, the statement said.
“Such a threat of retaliation by a spokesperson of the Bangladeshi government is shocking behaviour, particularly in the current context in Bangladesh where violent acts of retaliation against trade unionists continue,” Raina said.
In specifically naming a number of Bangladeshi trade union leaders, the minister has put their safety at risk, sending a clear signal to employers and other actors that violence is an acceptable response to legitimate trade union activity, he said.
The unions, however, said there has been progress in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza tragedy.
More than 180 global clothing brands have signed the Bangladesh Accord, a legally binding agreement on fire and building safety.
The Accord inspection team has surveyed more than half of the 1,600 factories supplying garments to Accord signatories, with inspections on target to be completed by October.
Intensive efforts by IndustriALL's Bangladeshi affiliates have succeeded in organising more than 50,000 workers in 150 factories, the statement said.
Meanwhile, the campaign to raise the minimum wage from $67 continues, following union gains in securing an increase from $38 in 2013, it said.
However, Hedayetullah Al Mamoon, senior secretary to the commerce ministry, protested the statement, saying Bangladesh has progressed a lot over the last one year in improving workplace safety and labour rights.
“We have done a lot after the Rana Plaza building collapse. Many international organisations, including the United States Trade Representative, have already praised our progress in improving workplace safety and labour rights,” Mamoon said.
He said the government has amended the labour laws allowing full freedom of association and the cabinet approved the draft EPZ law, which will pave the way for unionism in such specialised industrial zones.
The government has also started recruiting additional factory inspectors, he said.
“The inspection agencies have completed inspection of half the factories within a short period,” Mamoon said.