Despite the progresses made, labour rights appear to be a niggling issue for the Bangladesh garment sector so much so that even one of its biggest trading partners, the European Union, seems to have its reservations about the same!
Very recently, a high-powered delegation of European Commission visited the country to assess the existing labour scenario. The team arrived in Dhaka on September 11 for six-day visit and held a series of meetings with top Government officials, Bangladesh Employers Federation, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers, and Exporters Association, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, ILO, different rights groups and NGOs, during which the Government reportedly apprised the visiting EC delegation of the proposed changes in the labour law.
Bangladesh’s future to sustain trade benefits in the European Union (EU) market largely depends on the report of the delegation. Based on the team’s report, EU might reportedly decide whether it should launch an investigation to assess Bangladesh’s eligibility for GSP facility.
Apparel Resources spoke to one of the renowned labour leaders in the country to understand the ground reality.
“When I started working in the garment industry in the 80’s, it was very much disorganized. Factories would be set up on residential apartments with just a handful of machines and workers. However, things are very different today; at present, there are around 4,500 factories in Bangladesh, many of which have been set up at designated industrial belts. But despite the changes, workers’ lot has not improved much. In today’s world of globalization and market competitiveness, where focus is on sourcing cheap buyers have no qualms in shifting sourcing base for cheap apparels,” shares Nazma Akter, President of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (affiliated with the Global Union IndustriAll).
Akter, who has witnessed the transformation of the industry before her eyes maintains that most of the ills that faces the industry today are due to the so-called cheap labour.
“The number of accidents that took place in the Bangladesh apparel industry can directly or indirectly be linked to cheap labour, where there is no value for human lives. After the Tragic Rana Plaza incident, buyers’ bodies have worked towards factory remediation and making the workplace safer but none has worked towards improving the livelihood index of the workers. Till today, workers in Bangladesh perhaps get the lowest wages. Given the cost of living now, is it possible to survive and sustain even with a minimum wage of US $ 100?,” asks Akter.
Akter’s views on wage is even seconded by Md. Abdul Mottaleb, Managing Director of Global Sustainable Certification Services Limited (GSCS), who, while speaking to Apparel Resources earlier observed that workers’ wage forming a significant aspect of social sustainability, it’s time the industry turns its focus on paying the workers better. “Bangladesh is way behind when it comes to paying living wage. I would say 99 per cent of the factories do not pay living wage to the workers,” maintained the MD of GSCS.
GSCS is a well-known entity that offers comprehensive services in Social/ETI/Technical Auditing, Certification, Inspection, and Training business in all sectors focusing on RMG industry.
The manufacturers on their part blame the faltering price margins behind their inability to offer living wages to the workers. “The so-called talks of responsible/ethical sourcing, I don’t think is actually translating into practice; else how could Bangladesh still have one of the lowest wages in the world, why there is still lack of freedom of association in the factories, why is there malnutrition and diseases? Even if the end consumer is ready to pay extra to make sure that workers are benefitted and they lead a decent life, the corruption in the supply chain is preventing it from happening,” Akter alleges.
It may be mentioned here that following Rana Plaza Building collapse, the European Union and other partners engaged with Bangladesh in the sustainability compact in an aim to promote improvements in labour rights and workplace safety in the apparel sector. Although Bangladesh promised to ensure labour rights and investigating all acts of anti-union discrimination, a global labour rights group repeatedly urged EU for a trade investigation into labour rights abuses in Bangladesh.
In June this year, the International Trade Union Confederation filed a formal complaint with the European Ombudsman, claiming that the European Commission was not considering its human rights obligations regarding trade policies towards Bangladesh, and was not transparent in doing so. The confederation had alleged that Bangladesh committed serious and systematic violations of fundamental workers’ rights and the labour laws of the country created significant obstacles to the exercise of the Right to Freedom of Association, to organise, and to bargain collectively.
To make amends, the Bangladesh Cabinet has reportedly accepted in principle the amendment in Labour Act recently. As per Cabinet Secretary Md. Shafiul Alam, under the draft Bangladesh Labour Act (Amendment) Bill, 2018, the percentage of workers’ participation required for forming trade unions in factories will be reduced to 20 per cent from the existing 30 per cent. “The amended law will be a labour-friendly one,” the Cabinet Secretary reportedly underlined.
As a labour leader who has seen the industry from close quarters, Akter feels a sustainable business approach based on the principles of transparency, backed by strong legislation from the Government to ensure labour rights, workers’ empowerment and participation, is the only way forward if Bangladesh apparel sector is to grow and develop further, which she holds would be of the benefit to all the stakeholders- the buyers, manufacturers, and the workers alike.