Safety of Workers in Bangladesh

Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2014

THE concept of safety at the workplace as a fundamental human right is slowly making its way into the ethos of a South Asian society burdened with the notion of destiny. ‘If the roof falls on your head, too bad. You were fated to die this way while at work.’ Workers and other stakeholders are now rising up against this farcical justification for the inhuman treatment of labour. If not in Pakistan, at least in Bangladesh workers are demanding safety and stakeholders have begun to listen.

Bangladesh is taking the lead in giving higher priority to workers’ safety and the prevention of industrial accidents though it learnt its lesson the hard way: from 2005 to 2013, industrial accidents in the readymade garments sector killed over 2,000 workers and injured a higher number. These accidents occurred due to gross violations of building safety codes and labour standards. The case is not different here.

It took Bangladesh almost a decade to evolve and implement a workable mechanism. Today the ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’ a legally binding five-year agreement between Bangladeshi and global trade unions and MNCs is being hailed as a game changer in South Asia, the supplier of cheap labour for products to be consumed by the rich North.

The idea of the accord as a safety proposal was initiated in early 2010. After rounds of consultations among various stakeholders in Bangladesh and abroad it was signed in May 2013, just a month after the Rana Plaza collapse that killed 1,138 people.

The accord, signed by 170 MNCs, seven Bangladeshi trade union federations and three global trade unions, is governed by a steering committee with equal representation from trade union and company signatories. It specifies inspections, remediation and training under complete transparency.

Due to its three elements — legal enforceability, government support and worker empowerment — the accord is seen as a breakthrough. Under it, 800 out of 1,500 factories used by MNCs were inspected until August 2014. In another initiative, 26 US and Canadian companies have formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety to implement a five-year plan. By early 2014 the alliance had inspected 601 of the 700 factories used by its members.

The readymade garments industry contributes 17pc to the country’s GDP and amounts to 78pc of Bangladesh’s total export earnings. About 4,000 factories employ 4.2 million workers, of whom 75pc are women.

The major partners in both initiatives are MNCs who provide funds to implement the activities. Local manufacturers are required to bear the cost of structural factory repairs or renovations. So, what is the role of the Bangladesh government?

The state’s role in establishing a credible system of safety and health has remained weak in Bangladesh. The government did try, but in Bangladesh (like Pakistan), the factory owners sit in parliament and resist changes that would increase ‘labour cost’.

After a factory collapse in 2005 killing 70, the Bangladesh government set up a task force under the pressure of local trade unions, international trade bodies and labour organisations. As the task force plan (strict audits, unannounced inspections) covered large factories owned by members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacture and Export Association, the initiative failed. The government formed a compliance monitoring cell in 2005 to ensure safety standards but in vain. Another initiative, the 2006 Multi Fibre Arrangement Forum Bangladesh, with representation from the government, industry, buyers and trade unions also failed. The failure was due to lack of political will and the political clout of big manufacturers.

After the factory fire in November 2012 that killed 112 people, the labour ministry, manufacturers, trade unions and ILO adopted a ‘joint statement of commitment’ in January 2013 and worked out a ‘national tripartite plan of action on building and fire safety’ endorsed in March last year. The plan covered legislation and policy, human resource development and administration. Amendments to the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 were adopted in July 2013 and the national occupational safety and health policy approved in October 2013. The MNCs-funded accord on safety is built upon the national plan.

The stories from the ground indicate significant progress in this sector in Bangladesh in working conditions and workers’ empowerment after the accord. But what about factories producing for domestic consumption? Also, will there be a sustainable occupational safety and health system in place in Bangla­desh after the international brands stop funding?

Meanwhile, in Pakistan it is time for stakeholders to reflect on safety issues, motivate the employers and state to stand up to the task and critically evaluate why it is the ILO that must push for a joint action plan for workers’ safety.

View article at Dawn: http://www.dawn.com/news/1135571/labour-wakes-up

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