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BGMEA, Labor Campaigners Lock Horns on Working Conditions

Labor campaigners are urging Bangladesh to make “sincere efforts” to implement the roadmap requested by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to improve working conditions in the South Asian nation, which they say continues to repress conventions such as freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain.

Despite the government’s recent updates on priority areas such as labor law reform, trade union registration, addressing acts of anti-union discrimination and violence against workers, commitments remain unfulfilled, IndustriALL Global Union said. And in meetings with IndustriALL affiliates in December and January, affiliates revealed that they had not been consulted or included in any discussions of the roadmap.

“From the government’s report, it appears that no meaningful consultation has been held with trade unions,” said Apoorva Kaiwar, regional secretary of IndustriALL South Asia. “Since the most important sector in Bangladesh is the ready-made garment sector, any meaningful consultation will necessarily have to be done with IndustriALL’s affiliates, which has not been done.”

The ILO has given Bangladesh until November to report on any further progress on its alleged non-observance of Conventions 81, 87 and 98, which several workers’ rights groups specified in a complaint under article 26 of the ILO Constitution in 2019. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) warned the government last week, however, that failure to show improvement could trigger a Commission of Inquiry, the highest-level investigation that the ILO can carry out when a country has repeatedly refused to address “persistent and serious” violations. Only 14 such inquiries, the most recent of which include Belarus, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, have been conducted to date.

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“The ILO’s roadmap to improve working conditions in Bangladesh is now a checklist of broken promises delivered by the government with alarming consequences for working people,” said ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow. “The government continues to ignore these deaths and violent attacks on its own citizens as it fails to make any meaningful progress to improve labor laws. The prescription has been given by the ILO to improve workers’ rights, but the government’s continued refusal to take the medicine that will save workers’ lives and ensure decent work is beyond understanding.”

The calls to action follow an ITUC report laying out what it described as the “impact of government inaction” on the lives of Bangladeshis working in the ready-made garment, shipbreaking, and leather industries. Repressive laws, obstacles to union formation and ruthless repression of strikes have made the South Asian nation one of the “10 worst countries in the world for working people,” it said. According to the ITUC’s Global Rights Index, Bangladesh has been rated 5—no guarantee of rights—for the past eight years, on the basis of “weekly reports…of deaths at work, violent attacks against workers and harassment and intimidation of trade union members.”

Workers, the report said, do not have a safe complaints mechanism, and calling for grievances to be resolved often results in verbal and physical abuse from the employer or dismissal. Similarly, those who try to form or join trade unions are frequently met with employee threats, physical violence and dismissals. Even when workers are successful in organizing, registration can be “arbitrarily denied” by the authorities. Of the 1,100-plus union registration applications that were lodged with the department of labor between 2010 and 2021, 46 percent were rejected, ITUC said.

“Since the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, the government of Bangladesh has failed to implement commitments it has made to respect international labor standards and improve the working and living conditions of workers in Bangladesh,” Burrow said. “The government must take this seriously and must fully, completely and in a timely manner implement the ILO road map and the EU national action plan.”

Nearly 8 million Bangladeshis are injured—35,000 fatally so—at work every year, the report said. Sexual violence runs rampant, poverty wages are par for the course and millions of workplaces are “barely monitored” by government labor inspectors, it added. Covid-19 has exacerbated many of these conditions. Job security, in particular, has taken a hit, with many workers losing their jobs or migrating from permanent contracts to precarious short-term ones. Non-payment of wages and benefits has also skyrocketed.

The ITUC’s findings, though not surprising, are not Bangladesh’s fault alone, said Muhammad Azizul Islam, professor in sustainability accounting and transparency at the University of Aberdeen Business School. In a January study conducted with the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre and Traidcraft Exchange U.K., Islam found that order cancellations by Western retailers resulted in factory closures and job losses that left roughly 2.8 million garment workers facing poverty and starvation.

Workers' rights groups say labor conditions in Bangladesh's garment industry are deteriorating; its apex body says otherwise.
Ready-made garments worker works in a garments factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 27, 2022. Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via AP

“Both global fashion retailers, suppliers and the Bangladesh government are equally responsible for the systematic violations of workers’ rights,” Islam told Sourcing Journal. “ILO’s so-called soft approach via Better Work is ineffective in creating change—ILO often paints fashion brands and their Western alliance ‘heros’ by just highlighting suppliers’ and governments’ already poor conditions rather than holding fashion brands accountable.”

‘Unrealistic accusations’

But the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country’s largest trade group of factory owners, denounced the report, saying that it used misleading information and “deluded the true picture” of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment sector, “which is considered as one of the safest and [most] sustainable industries in the world.”

“Except for the title of the report, most of it seemingly over-generalizes or misinterprets facts and makes unfounded accusations,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “The report starts with a sweeping and derogatory comment, ‘Labor rights are deteriorating in Bangladesh,’ which is not substantiated. Contrary to that, a paradigm shift has happened in the area of working conditions and ensuring the well-being of the workers.”

The BGMEA also took issue with the report’s characterization of progress in post-Rana Plaza Bangladesh, pointing out “unprecedented initiatives” that coalesced in the form of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the European Union-backed Sustainability Compact and the government’s own National Action Plan to carry out safety inspections and improvements. All inspection reports, it added, have been disclosed online, which has “set a unique example in the world on the issue of workplace safety and as a result, Bangladesh has emerged probably as the safest and most transparent ready-made garment-producing country.”

Regarding union registrations, the BGMEA said that the approval rate for trade unions in the sector has jumped from 27 percent in 2015 to 75 percent in 2021. The number of registered unions now stands at 1,110, of which 978 were registered since 2013. The ILO-backed Better Work program, designed to improve labor standards and promote gender equality, now boasts the participation of 341 factories and 715,000 workers. Factories, the organization noted, have formed anti-sexual harassment committees, and the minimum wage has ballooned by 381 percent since 2010. Nearly 100 percent of factories comply with the minimum wage law and pay wages on time, it added.

“It is unfortunate that even though we are trying our best to ensure the safety and well-being of our workers through numerous activities and initiatives, none of those are being highlighted anywhere at all,” the spokesperson said. “Rather, false and fabricated allegations, creating misconceptions about our industry is portrayed. Publishing claims without factory and workers’ names not only questions the authenticity of the report but also their professional integrity. BGMEA welcomes any kind of positive engagement and collaboration for the greater cause of the workers and the industry, but any such report with fabricated information is not acceptable at all.”

The BGMEA said it is “not complacent” about its work and that while safety at work is a “supreme consideration,” it is also making strides in ensuring worker well-being and a “gender-neutral” culture, with factory programs that supply healthcare, childcare, education for workers’ children and more. Roughly 90 young garment workers are currently pursuing higher studies at the Asian University for Women with support from their respective employers, it said.

“The industry is learning and improving every day. More efforts are on the way to ensure a better ecosystem within the industry as we aim for sustained growth,” the spokesperson said. “While we condemn the misrepresentation of the fact and falsehood, our objective is clear. We would like ITUC to constructively criticize, not make unrealistic accusations. We are ready to collaborate and cooperate with utmost sincerity.”

Still, Steve Lamar, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, which counts Adidas and Gap as members and recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said he was troubled by the allegations in the ITUC report. “We will work closely with our members and MOU partners at BGMEA to make sure these charges are investigated and, if substantiated, addressed as we continue to support and advance worker rights in Bangladesh and around the world,” he told Sourcing Journal.

For Burrow, a “better Bangladesh” is not only necessary but within reach—and sooner rather than later. The ITUC is calling on the government to improve job security; uphold the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining; introduce a national minimum wage; make workplaces safe; and eliminate harassment, discrimination and abuse against women workers.

“The government of Bangladesh must immediately set up a transparent and effective monitoring mechanism for the implementation of the ILO road map and meaningfully consult with tripartite constituents on all the action points. Good faith social dialogue must be the basis for upholding workers’ rights and negotiating settlements to grievances,” she said. “There is no moral, political or economic reason for delay. Improving conditions for workers will save lives, increase productivity and strengthen workplace and national democracy in Bangladesh. The time to act is now.”