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Campaign for workers’ rights continues in Bangladesh

14 June, 2013Already 50 global brands and retailers have signed the historic Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, launching a major project to make the country’s garment industry safe and sustainable. However, IndustriALL’s campaign to improve labour rights and minimum wages continues.

The process leading to the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was not easy. Still in March, as the world’s ten leading clothing brands and retailers accepted the invitation of IndustriALL Global Union to come and discuss in Geneva, there was an amazing level of complacency among them. I saw no sense of urgency, despite the deadly factory fires and building collapses in the past.

Then the Rana Plaza building came down on 24 April. Again, the first days of rescue work and death toll reports produced no change. Only after the tragic magnitude and circumstances around this industrial homicide attracted an unprecedented global public and media reaction, clothing brands and retailers started to feel the heat.

It was then, in the early days of May, when IndustriALL Global Union and our sister international UNI Global Union told the clothing brands that we would not accept anything but a legally binding agreement for producing a lasting change. After hectic negotiations, hope and despair, intrigues and watering down attempts, Sweden’s H&M and Spain’s Inditex opened the way and announced on 13 May that they would sign. All the others followed.

Well, not all. We knew that US retail giant Walmart was never going to sign anything with unions. With another US company GAP we tried hard, but the management finally said they could not accept paying for the necessary safety upgrades.

The good news is that with 50 companies on board and more joining every day, we now have the critical mass for producing a real change on the ground during the years to come. A joint union-company team is putting together an Implementation Plan by 8 July. Then inspections and trainings of management and workers will start.

One of our major challenges is to convince the Bangladeshi garment owners that the days of contempt for human life are over. We are just working on a case where an inspection team of brands found a factory with an imminent danger of collapse. Shockingly, the owner refused to evacuate the workers, claiming the building was safe. The brands immediately terminated their business relationship with the factory.

We will face difficult decisions when going through Bangladesh’s 5,000 garment factories which employ four million workers. But IndustriALL wants the brands and retailers to stay in the country and provide safe and good quality jobs.

However, the Bangladeshi garment industries will only become sustainable when the workers have the right to freely set up unions, earn a living wage and work without fear of getting killed.

We are now pushing for a labour law reform to guarantee freedom of association. The Bangladesh unions have rejected the government’s proposal as inadequate. IndustriALL will work with the ITUC and the ILO to continue to put pressure on the political decision-makers.

Also the minimum wage needs to be raised from 38 USD per month step by step to reach a living wage by 2015. The consumer reaction has been clear. They are prepared to pay the few extra cents per t-shirt required to get rid of what Pope Francis called “slave labour”.

Jyrki Raina

General Secretary