Fix law, get benefits
The narrow, rusty and wobbly fire escape of garment factories housed in a dilapidated building at Chairmanbari of Banani in the capital. How the fire escape will hold in case of an emergency, when hundreds if not more than a thousand workers use it, beggars belief. Photo: Sk Enamul Haq
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Bank are firm about not letting Bangladesh join a global textile industry monitoring programme run by them until the country implements the proposed amendments to its labour law.
In a bid to enhance the image of the country's garment sector, factory owners and the government after the Tazreen fire last year sought to join the Better Work programme. It involves unannounced, independent inspections of participating textile plants and technical help from the WB for managers and plant owners.
But ILO officials said the country's labour laws at present are so “weak”, and the conditions for unions and workers so “treacherous” that the organisation has demanded major changes prior to approving its participation in the programme.
“There is a lack of clarity in the law and we cannot, as a programme, get involved in monitoring factories and being seen as resolving conflicts when, in fact, we are not empowered to do that.”
Lejo Sibbel, the programme's senior design adviser, told The Daily Star that some legal reforms which would increase transparency in the legislature were imperative.
“We are trying to reduce the risks as we genuinely want the programme to be effective and successful.”
The participation of Bangladesh in the programme will be ensured if the government implements at least some major issues tied to workers' freedom of association.
“And it should be done in an environment conducive to dialogue between employers and workers,” Sibbel added.
The ILO's stance underlines pressure on Bangladesh to reform its labour law, which the government has paid some heed to.
The cabinet approved a draft last week to an amended labour law, which, among others, is said to give greater freedom to the formation of trade unions. The draft is slated to go before parliament in June.
It stipulates at least 30 percent representation of workers of a factory for the formation of a trade union and workers only within the factory are eligible for the position of union leaders.
Trade unions are currently not allowed at garment factories, and labour leaders on Thursday last week claimed the amendments went against workers in the apparel industry.
“Some factories have upwards of 40,000 workers, and it would be almost impossible to assemble that many workers in one place to take their consent on trade union,” said Mojibur Rahman Bhuiyan, general secretary of Bangladesh Mukto Shramik Federation.
“These provisions -- all of which prevent formation of unions freely -- go against ILO Convention 87,” said Bhuiyan, who is also the vice-chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, an apex body of labour unions.
Sibbel said the ILO has yet to receive a copy of the amended draft.
Meanwhile, Rees told the Washington Post that the Better Work programme, if it does come to terms with Bangladesh in the near future, would likely be able to monitor only a couple of hundred factories in its early years.
“While that could grow over time, it is a mistake to see these initiatives as an alternative to good governance. There is not an alternative to goods laws, well enforced.”
The programme, launched in August 2006, currently monitors some textile factories in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere, the Washington Post reports.
The Better Work programme yields three major benefits: it reduces the hassles for factory owners of multiple inspections by international retailers, as it puts in place a uniform system of factory inspections by “enterprise advisers' hired by ILO.
It increases capacity building in the sector through training factory managers and workers, together with brightening the image of the sector as a whole as compliance goes up several notches.