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Promoting labour rights in Bangladesh

19 March, 2013IndustriALL’s campaign to improve labour rights, minimum wages and fire safety in Bangladesh continues. Discussions with the government, employers and foreign garment brands and retailers have progressed, but there is a long way to go to ensure a sustainable future and creation of new decent jobs.

The Executive Committee of IndustriALL Global Union listed Bangladesh as one of the priority countries for action. Almost half of the population of 160 million live under the national poverty line.

The government is betting on the future of textile and garment industries, which employ 3.5 million workers. This figure could double by 2015 and triple by 2020. Last year garment exports amounted to 20 billion dollars, or 80 per cent of total export income.

IndustriALL supports the goal of finding a sustainable growth path for the Bangladeshi garment industry and the creation of millions of good quality jobs. This future is under serious threat.

During the past years, media reports in Europe and North America have drawn the consumers’ attention to problems with labour rights, extremely low wages, long working hours, and fire safety.

Visiting Bangladesh in February, I found out that there is a functioning and registered local trade union only in a couple of dozens of garment factories out of 5000. As a result of intimidation and problems with registration, less than 1 per cent of the workforce is unionized.

Following reprimands from ILO’s Committee of Experts and pressure from the US government and the European Union, the government has now announced that the Labour Act will be revised by April. Recently, ten new local level union organizations have been registered.

Wage systems in most factories are based on the national minimum wage of 36 USD per month, which is about a third of a living wage. In a factory I visited, workers were working 12-18 hours overtime on top of the 48 hour working week, just to make ends meet.

IndustriALL is demanding a considerable raise of the minimum wage towards a living wage, followed by annual revisions. Minimum wages in nearby India, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, China and Indonesia have been raised considerably, leaving Bangladesh lagging clearly behind.

Improving fire safety requires urgent measures. Since 2006, almost 600 workers have died in factory fires. 50 to 90 per cent of garment factories are estimated to be dangerous.

No wonder that major brands and retailers are feeling the pressure. The biggest companies sourcing from Bangladesh include H&M, Inditex, Walmart, Gap, C&A, Tesco, Marks&Spencer and El Corte Inglés.

In January, 24 chief executives wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, communicating their concern of the future success of Bangladesh’s garment sector, if fire safety and its underlying causes were not addressed. “These issues threaten to further damage the sector,” said the CEOs.

An important step forward was a tripartite fire safety agreement signed by the Bangladeshi government, employer organizations and IndustriALL Bangladesh Council of unions in January, followed by a National Action Plan at the end of February.

IndustriALL is now continuing discussions with different stakeholders on how to combine various fire safety initiatives, including a memorandum of understanding signed by ourselves, into one coordinated approach. Increased inspections, training, setting up local health and safety committees and upgrading dangerous facilities are urgently required.

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 by fire. There is still a long way to go.

Jyrki Raina
General Secretary