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Countries, Orgs Join to Rescue Bangladesh

With concerns over Bangladesh factory safety mounting, more and more nations and organizations are joining efforts to improve working conditions in the country.

At a UN General Assembly meeting in New York this week, The International Labour Organization (ILO) signed new agreements with the Netherlands, UK and Canada to support safety in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector.

Under the agreement, the countries will partner to get work environments up to par, ensure that factory inspections are thorough and strengthen building and fire safety standards by supporting the Bangladeshi National Action Plan for Fire and Building Safety, a measure made in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy.

“The rapid growth in Bangladesh’s garment industry has provided vital jobs to women and men and is helping to pull them and their families out of poverty. However, there is an urgent need for decisive and collaborative action to make decent work a reality,” ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder said in a statement. “This program will improve conditions of work, especially safety, and help generate sustainable economic growth and investment,” he added.

There are several other initiatives also supporting the National Action Plan, including the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year worker safety program that has gained support from more than eighty brands and companies and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, chaired by former Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher.

US Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Tauscher Wednesday urging the Alliance to take an active role in increasing awareness and understanding of garment workers’ rights in Bangladesh, according to a statement from the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

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In the letter, Menendez, the son of a former garment worker, wrote that while he applauds the Alliance’s initiatives, it should be doing more to empower workers. “Bangladesh’s factories will be truly safer when the workers can organize, speak and act together, without fear of retribution from factory owners or managers,” he wrote.

Menendez went on to say that had Bangladeshi workers been unionized or able to organize and refuse to work in unsafe conditions, the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions tragedies might have been avoidable. He also noted that education on unions is lacking. “Simply put, owners are scared of unions and workers are scared to organize; both sides appear to fear what they do not know,” he wrote.

The Alliance plan pledges to send teams into all of its factories to train workers and managers on building and fire safety but Menendez has asked that the training be expanded to include education on workers’ rights and responsibilities with regard to unions.

“By working directly in its factories to dispel the ignorance surrounding the proper role of unions, the Alliance will improve the safety of its factories and, consequently, the reputations of its members,” he wrote, adding that he looks forward to working closely with Tauscher in the future.

These major industrial accidents have plagued Bangladesh’s RMG industry in the past year and the government is working to ensure conditions and perceptions improve in the sector that largely supports the country’s economy. With new organizations cropping up and joining in to keep the garment industry safe, workers may soon see support for their well-being.

ILO Director-General Ryder said it is important that the various initiatives come together for a “single coherent endeavour,” so as to avoid a “fragmentation of efforts.”