Thomas Anton Kochan, George Maverick Bunker professor of work and employment relations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Sloan School of Management, stresses the need to form organisations that give workers a voice. He visited Bangladesh to attend a session on Assuring Workplace Tranquillity at Dhaka Apparel Summit that ended on December 9. Kochan sat with The Daily Star for a brief interview.
The Daily Star (TDS): What should Bangladesh prioritise to improve labour relations in the garment industry?
Thomas Anton Kochan (TAK): I believe the most important thing for Bangladesh is to respect workers' rights to form organisations that work best to give workers voices and serve their interests at their workplaces. There are not many unions in Bangladesh today, but I believe we are not going to solve the safety challenges, upgrade labour standards or improve living conditions without stronger independent, democratic legitimate unions for worker organisations. Fostering and sustaining these should be the number one priority.
TDS: Consumers in the West are observing Bangladesh's development after the Rana Plaza building collapse. What is their reaction and impression now?
TAK: I think the western world has been observing Bangladesh with a critical eye for the last several years, given the tragedies it has experienced. Everyone was appalled at the loss of life and at the same time, everyone is noticing that Bangladesh is working on these issues. And for the first time, I believe people in the West are saying that the country is on the right track; stay on it.
TDS: Bangladesh has made some progress in upgrading safety and labour standards. Do you see complacency now?
TAK: There is always a flurry of activity after a tragedy. And the country has stepped up, responded to and met the challenge. But real leadership comes in by continuing efforts when pressures begin to fade. That is a sign of leadership and that is what the world expects of Bangladesh.
TDS: What do you say for international retailers?
TAK: The brands have special responsibility to work together, coordinate their efforts and be diligent in holding each other accountable for best practices. It is no longer adequate for one company to try to do this on its own. It needs to bring in its competitors to work together in their common interest to improve safety and labour standards.
TDS: What's your take on the apparel sector's target to raise exports to $50 billion by 2021?
TAK: I believe it is an ambitious goal. It is a bold statement but I think it is achievable if the industry addresses the workplace problems. Unless it resolves conflicts effectively, monitors and improves safety conditions, meets world class levels of employment standards, and invests in its workforce to improve productivity with training and engagement, it will never meet this objective. But if it pursues these, I believe it can be successful by 2021.
TDS: What words of wisdom do you want to convey to the garment entrepreneurs and the government?
TAK: The business community has an enormous opportunity to take the next step in improving productivity and workers' welfare. By working with NGOs, international brands, International Labour Organisation, institutions like the Accord and Alliance, and making sure that all employers are disciplined to meet the highest standards of workplace safety should be the number of priority of all of business leaders in Bangladesh. The sector has had tremendous progress but it will not be enough until all the factories are safe. We know there is a long way to go in meeting the objective and so, progress has to stay on course.
The government has to increase its investment in building a credible, professional department of labour that takes on more inspections and regulatory responsibilities and enforces internationally accepted labour standards. That should be the number one priority of the Bangladesh government.