Working in a Bangladesh garment factory. Photo: Jankie
Union campaigns begin to make a difference in Bangladesh
There’s a long way to go to improve working lives in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) industry, but progress is underway. With the publication of the first reports, the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord has begun to deliver on the promise of better factories, and at last there is a realistic prospect that the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster and their families will receive fair compensation. But there’s still work to be done on both issues – see below for how you can help – and much more that governments in Bangladesh and closer to home must do.
First, the Accord, which last week published the first 30 inspection reports from 10 factories, conducted in December 2013. By the end of September, the Accord’s inspectors will have visited 1,500 factories, and all of the reports they compile will be made public in a historic show of openness. Alan Roberts, Executive Director of the Accord’s international operations (and former Chair of the UK Ethical Trading Initiative), said that many safety repairs had already been made to the first factories inspected.
“By publishing reports and making them easily understandable with photographs, we help the workers and public understand these problems and see that they’re fixable.”
Over 150 global corporates have signed up to the Accord, but there are still some companies sourcing from Bangladesh who haven’t, and you can still put pressure on them to sign up. The TUC still has four targets on our list, and this month our US equivalent the AFLCIO urged its members to put pressure on VF Corp. that owns high-profile brands such as The North Face, Timberland and JanSport.
Second, compensation, where an alliance of the Bangladesh government, unions and employers – together with global unions, corporates and the ILO – have established the Rana Plaza Arrangement to provide collective compensation to victims and families. The Arrangement’s compensation fund is due to launch next Monday, 24 March, exactly a month before the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster on 24 April. It’s estimated that the fund needs £24m to pay out compensation according to ILO standards, and the fund was boosted over the weekend by Primark, who announced a further £6m package, on top of money the company has already paid out, and urged its fellow corporates to contribute to the ILO fund as soon as possible.
Anyone can contribute to the fund, and companies doing so don’t have to admit any liability – indeed, several who have already contributed had either already terminated their links with Rana Plaza before the building collapsed, or had never sourced from the factories in the building. Some well-known high street brands have even donated anonymously, although we’d urge them to go public to encourage others. We reckon about 15 companies have made contributions (some of them initial payments that need to be topped up) but there are a lot who were sourcing from Rana Plaza and haven’t yet paid in, so please urge them to do so.
But there’s one more, huge step forward that Bangladesh needs to make, and that’s establishing full freedom of association for the predominantly female workforce in the industry and across the economy. Despite recent progress, the labour law needs further change to give workers the unqualified right to join a trade union without fear of harassment or victimisation. At present, for example, unions are still banned in Bangladesh’s export processing zones, and union officials are required to be employed at the workplace they represent, so employers can escape unionisation by sacking anyone who takes on that role.
Most of the work to get employers signed up to the Accord and the Arrangement has been done by unions – global federations like IndustriALL in manufacturing and UNI in retail, or by national confederations like the TUC and affiliates representing shop-workers like USDAW. Support also came from multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Ethical Trading Initiative. But getting the Bangladesh government to reform its labour law requires political pressure from other governments, like the UK. Those governments will be our next campaign target.