After Rana Plaza: Business As Usual?

More than one and a half years have passed since 1137 garment workers lost their lives and more than 2500 people were injured in the Rana Plaza industrial disaster – only five months after a fire at Tazreen factory killed 112 workers. These disasters sent shockwaves around the world, and shed light on the exploitative and often dangerous working conditions of Bangladesh’s growing RMG-industry.

Rana plaza222For years Bangladeshi trade unions, together with their comrades in the international labour movement, had voiced their concerns about dangerous working conditions in this sector of the Bangladeshi economy. Yet it took a manmade disaster like Rana Plaza to finally begin long overdue efforts to ensure better working conditions in the country’s RMG-sector. It is important that both global and national stakeholders take responsibility for moving this push for workers’ rights forward.

Compensation for the victims of Rana Plaza is the first priority. International brands have so far failed to provide the adequate funding to ensure that all the survivors and the families of the 1137 victims are able to receive payments to cover loss of income and medical expenses. A trust fund that was agreed upon between brands, the government of Bangladesh, employers, national and international trade unions as well as NGOs, and administered by the ILO, was established after the incident to collect the necessary 40 million US dollars to compensate victims and their families. As it stands, less than half of the required amount has been paid into the fund. It is shameful that those injured and the families of the deceased workers perpetually await rightful compensation while brands continue to generate large profits. There is a need for continued international pressure on brands to finally pay what they have committed to.

It is shameful that those injured and the families of the deceased workers perpetually await rightful compensation while brands continue to generate large profits. There is a need for continued international pressure on brands to finally pay what they have committed to.

In Bangladesh itself one of the most important actions is making sure the ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety’ 2013 (‘The Accord’) is fully implemented. The Accord is a legally binding agreement between international trade unions, Bangladeshi trade unions, and international brands and retailers. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) acts as the independent chair. It includes a central and equal role for workers and worker representatives, including direct trade union participation in factory training. For too long the industry relied on one-off safety audits in its factories, conducted by auditing companies created and funded by brands themselves. The Accord instead pushes for strong industrial relations with trade unions as equal partners, which can replace flawed auditing models and conduct constant safety inspections in a context where workers are empowered to refuse dangerous work.

The Accord is a crucial first step to ensure better working conditions for the RMG-sector, and efforts should continue until the conditions and provisions of the Accord are met, and workplace safety and workers’ rights in the factories satisfy international standards. It is a matter of concern that other international inspection initiatives after Rana Plaza do not involve trade unions as equal partners. There are no compromises possible when the health and safety of workers are in danger, even if improvements mean additional costs for brands and factory owners. Consumers are increasingly interested where and how their clothes are produced. That is why the image of an industry that strives for profits at the price of risking workers lives is surely neither desirable nor profitable, especially in an industry that is so mobile with brands threatening to move elsewhere if the image of Bangladesh’s RMG industry worsens further.

The responsibility to protect workers primarily lies with the employers and with the government entrusted to implement and enforce labour laws, and bring the labour law in line with binding ILO conventions. So let us look beyond the Accord at what can be done by stakeholders in Bangladesh. Factory and building owners were the main culprits at Rana Plaza and Tazreen, but no less culpable are the international brands with big orders, and tight deadlines that exploit lax safety standards and labour laws. The most effective way to improve working conditions is to provide legal and political space for trade unions to organize workers and negotiate with factory owners as equal partners in a trustful social partnership.

Ensuring that work places are safe and wage growth remains at a socially and economically sustainable level requires reliable cooperation and accountability structures between workers and employers; this is the basis of industrial relations. Recent incidents in several garment factories where workers used their right and freedom to associate, but were subsequently fired by the factory management, beaten, or arrested by police are worrying and unacceptable. The potential of the industry is limited without the cooperation between social partners from a unified trade union movement, the BGMEA/BKMEA and the government.

Ensuring that work places are safe and wage growth remains at a socially and economically sustainable level requires reliable cooperation and accountability structures between workers and employers; this is the basis of industrial relations.

It is why international solidarity remains so important which enables the labour movement in Bangladesh to lobby more effectively for the institutionalization of channels and forums for dialogue, such as a tripartite mechanism between government, employers and workers. In a country where the labour force increases by 2.1 million per year and 87 percent of workers still have to make a living in the informal sector, it is in the interests of the government, workers, factory owners and brands to have a growing and prosperous RMG-industry that provides much needed employment and contributes to the country’s economic growth. However how this growth is managed will determine not only its sustainability but also avoid unnecessary deaths.

Historically, workers’ rights were often born out of tragedies like the fire at the Triangle Waist factory in the United States in 1911 which led to improved safety measures to protect American workers. They are not intended to be an ideological battleground. Workers’ rights are human rights and as such are a pillar of a just and equitable society. On the morning of April 24, 2013, the workers of the five garment factories in Rana Plaza had no choice but to enter a building deemed unsafe by inspectors the day before, due to intimidation, and threats of job loss and withheld pay. There was no trade union to speak on their behalf as none of the workers at Rana Plaza was a trade union member. These workers have become part of one of the worst industrial disasters in the world. It was manmade and preventable, and we cannot with good conscience look back ond and a half years later and accept business as usual. Over the last 100 years, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911 to Rana Plaza in Savar in 2013, time and again profit has been privileged over people. We know better, so why don’t we do better?

– Michael Sommer, Social Europe Journal


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