Are the increased numbers of trade unions indicative of an improvement in workers’ rights within the RMG sector?
Although trade unions play an important role in protecting the interests and rights of their members, it has been estimated that only 4% of RMG workers are union members. Any increase in the number of trade unions is therefore a positive sign in terms of ensuring workers’ rights.
However, while there was good growth in the number of trade unions in the RMG sector in 2013 and 2014, new registrations have since slowed considerably and it is important that issues relating to the trade union registration process be addressed.
The newly formed unions need to follow a steep learning curve in order to become effective. ILO and a number of stakeholders are working toward building the capacity of trade unions and creating an enabling environment for worker organisations and collective bargaining at the factory level.
What are the challenges to ensuring workers’ rights in the Bangladesh RMG sector?
There remains a widespread distrust in Bangladesh between employers and trade unions. Such negative attitudes become barriers to the formation of new unions and for the existing labour unions to operate effectively. This impacts the growth and sustainability of the country’s most crucial export sector. A better understanding, a positive role by trade unions and constructive cooperation between employers and workers is essential in this regard.
A transformative change is therefore needed in the relationships and partnerships upon which industries are built. This can be brought about through greater social dialogue between the government, employers and workers.
Only 4% of RMG workers are union members. Any increase in the number of trade unions is therefore a positive sign in terms of ensuring workers’ rights
What should the government do to ensure freedom of association in the apparel sector as well as in other manufacturing sectors?
In June 2016, the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards concluded a special paragraph calling for further amendments to the Bangladesh Labour Act relating to freedom of association and collective bargaining to structure it to comply with international labour standards, including revisiting the minimum 30% requirement of membership for union registration.
Specifically, trade unions need to be allowed to operate without harassment or obstacles. Genuine efforts are needed to combat anti-union discrimination and unfair labour practices. The trade union registration process also needs to become a smooth and expeditious formality with objective and transparent criteria.
In addition, changes need to be made to the legal framework applicable in the export processing zones to ensure that the rights of workers are in line with those provided in the national labour law and international labour standards.
These conclusions of the Committee on the Application of Standards are important and need to be acted upon. The government’s progress in addressing these issues will be considered during the ILO’s International Labour Conference in June 2017.
Do you think the workers’ lack of knowledge about their rights is a barrier to effective unionism? What should be the approach in this regard?
It is vital that both workers and employers understand their rights, obligations and responsibilities. Unless they do so, there is no way that an environment can be created in which labour rights are respected. Not only do major efforts need to be made toward enhancing the general awareness of labour rights, but also the fact that places where labour rights are respected have shown an increase in productivity needs to be highlighted. This is an issue that is receiving focus from the ILO and will continue to be a priority, with a particular initial focus on the RMG sector.
Do you think workplace safety has improved in Bangladesh RMG sector?
Since the Rana Plaza collapse, there have been considerable improvements in terms of workplace safety in the RMG sector through the combined efforts of the government, employers and workers organisations, the Accord and Alliance as well as development partners.
Most of the export oriented RMG factories have been inspected for structural, fire and electrical safety. Those posing an immediate danger were closed and all others are undergoing remediation.
The Department of Inspections for Factories and Establishments has also been transformed and is now able to carry out its regulatory mandate in a far more effective, accountable and credible manner.
A culture of Occupational Safety and Health is being built both at the institutional and enterprise levels. Owners have installed fire doors and upgraded electrical systems and millions of workers are now more aware of basic safety issues.
Irrespective of how much has already been achieved, it is vital that efforts continue to in order to ensure continued workplace safety and that the changes which have taken place in the RMG sector also begin to be replicated in other industries for the benefit of all workers.
What are the challenges to the completion of remediation?
Both the Accord and Alliance are progressing well with the remediation of the factories from which their members source garments. For the other export factories, their remediation is being overseen by a national initiative supported by the ILO, with funding from Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
A major step is now being taken with the formation of a Remediation Coordination Cell (RCC) which will oversee the remediation in approximately 1,500 factories. The RCC will bring together regulatory agencies with private engineering expertise to support the remediation process. While progress for the national initiative has been slower than Accord and Alliance, it is important to recognise that this work is about more than simply fixing faults in factories.
The institutional mechanisms and capacity to manage the remediation work have been established and this will play a long-term role in ensuring workplace safety after the Accord, Alliance and the development partner support ends.
What should be the next steps toward achieving sustainable safety improvements?
The momentum which has been created with regards to workplace safety must be continued. Continued efforts must be made to complete all remediation work, build a credible and sustainable monitoring and compliance system and to continue to build a culture of Occupational Safety and Health. Focus must also be placed on other sectors in addition to RMG and a National Plan of Action on Occupational Safety and Health outlining future steps and priorities should be drafted.
Furthermore, the government, in collaboration with the ILO and Germany, will carry on its efforts to establish an Employment Injury Social Protection Scheme. Such a scheme would see workers receive compensation and medical and rehabilitation services in the event of an accident and as such make a major contribution to the creation of an overall safety environment.