Can global brands' green push improve Bangladesh labour rights?

The ILO has put the government on notice for allowing continued violations of workers' rights, while fashion giants are pushing for greener and socially just business models.

worker_Bangladesh
A worker dries fabrics after applying colour at a dye factory in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, March 9, 2022. Image:  REUTERS/ Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Md. Sajib, in his early twenties, prepares for an 18-hour shift in a hot and dingy multi-storey factory building in Old Dhaka.

Many small factories, like his, make clothes for the local market - and as the holy month of Ramadan approaches, they are running round the clock to meet demand. That means long hours.

Last month, a report from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) highlighted violations of workers’ rights in three sectors in Bangladesh: garment manufacturing, ship-breaking and leather.

A global rights index published by the ITUC ranks Bangladesh among the 10 worst countries for protection of workers’ rights due to weak laws, constraints on joining trade unions and “brutal repression” of strikes.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) also in March ordered Bangladesh to report on its progress to improve working conditions at the ILO governing body’s November meeting, warning inadequate progress could lead to a commission of inquiry.

Last year, Dhaka prepared a roadmap, based on ILO guidance, to implement outstanding reforms on labour laws, trade union registration, labour inspection and enforcement, unfair labour practices and violence against workers.

We look at whether things are improving on the ground, and how new commitments by global fashion brands could speed up the move to greener and fairer business models in Bangladesh:

Have fatal factory accidents helped tighten safety for workers?

Bangladesh has more than 3,720 export-oriented garment factories, employing about 2.7 million workers, according to Mapped in Bangladesh, an initiative run by the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development at BRAC University.

Efforts have been made to boost workplace safety in the garment sector since the 2012 Tazreen Fashion fire, which killed more than 100 workers, and the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, in which at least 1,132 workers died.

After the Rana Plaza disaster, international fashion brands created the Accord and Alliance platforms, which have helped improve safety in factories through inspections, audits, remediation and training.

Since 2020, a nationally led RMG Sustainability Council, bringing together industry owners, brands and trade unions, has taken over the work of ensuring building and fire safety. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) says significant improvements have been made on workers’ rights, including safety and transparency.

What power do workers have to secure better conditions?

Efforts to allow Bangladeshi workers freedom to organise have lagged behind other areas, labour experts and workers say.

There are about 1,100 registered trade unions in the garment sector, as well as workers’ participation committees in many factories. Yet trade union activism remains mired in challenges.

Shahin, 23, works in a large factory in Hemayetpur, west of Dhaka, with decent conditions. He was previously general secretary of a factory-level trade union and helped organise a workers’ push for higher wages, but when he lost his job, he drifted away from union activism, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Repon Chowdhury, executive director of the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation and secretary-general of the Bangladesh Free Trade Union Congress, noted there are many employer-controlled “yellow” unions that do not serve the interests of workers.

But business owners’ fears that employee-led trade unions could foster chaos are unfounded, he added.

“Healthy industrial relations are fundamental to ensuring a healthy working environment,” he said.

Monzur Moin, international affairs secretary of the Garment Workers’ Trade Union Centre, which has connections with more than 2,000 factory committees, said getting a trade union registered by the Department of Labour can be a complicated process, with applications often rejected on flimsy grounds.

Hafiz Ahmad Mazumdar, a deputy director at the Department of Labour, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the government is in the process of amending the labour law and regulations to enhance workers’ rights and freedom of association.

For example, the minimum ratio of workers required to support formation of a union has been cut in recent amendments.

In its latest report on Bangladesh, the ITUC noted that only around half of applications to set up unions had been approved since 2010.

But BGMEA President Faruque Hassan said registrations were on the rise, increasing from just over a quarter of applications in 2015 to three-quarters in 2021.

In a report to the ILO, the government said it had digitalised its trade union registration system. But the online system has experienced glitches, with applicants going back to offline registration.

Gias Uddin, a director at the Department of Labour, said its officials needed greater human resources and support to continue to facilitate freedom of association for workers.

The labour ministry also plans to create a digital database for formal and informal-sector workers to make it easier to provide benefits to them, similar to that in India.

Big fashion brands are demanding better working and environmental performance from suppliers - will this help?

While the garment industry has improved its safety record, other sectors contributing less to national exports have seen fewer advances. Last July, a fire broke out in the Hashem Foods factory in Narayanganj near Dhaka, killing at least 54 people.

The government’s factory inspection department has appointed about 1,000 new inspectors - but that is still inadequate to cover the more than 90,000 registered factories in a growing economy with a vast informal sector.

Small clothing factories located on the outskirts of Dhaka that cater to the local market, mainly staffed by men, do not provide the employee identification needed for institutional entitlements such as the minimum wage or paid sick leave.

International fashion brands procuring apparel from Bangladesh have assumed a more active role in recent years to raise both labour and environmental standards.

Swedish fashion chain H&M, for example, the largest foreign company procuring in Bangladesh with more than 200 suppliers, has a vision of achieving climate-neutrality in its supply chain by 2030 and has pledged to pay a living wage to workers.

It is also among the 77 brands that signed the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment and Textile Industry in September for a 26-month period, which commits members to ensuring workplace safety and labour rights.

Another example is Green Button, a German government-supported certification that signals to buyers that clothes have been produced in line with labour rights and environmental standards. Uptake has been slow, however, with only a few dozen companies having earned the certification.

The BGMEA’s Hassan noted that Bangladesh is moving towards sustainable, green manufacturing, with nearly 160 factories now certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

But reforms to meet international standards are mainly happening at the larger factories that supply directly to big brands, with sub-contractors and smaller businesses producing for local markets often not subject to close monitoring.

In addition, while global brands may be pushing to combine social and environmental considerations, in Bangladesh the two issues are usually treated as separate and handled by different government departments, despite clear areas of overlap such as management of hazardous chemicals or noise pollution.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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