Experts, employers and labour leaders on Sunday said that improving trust between workers and factory owners and ensuring fairness in the readymade garment value chain were the key challenges for making the sector sustainable.
At a dialogue styled ‘Catalysing Social Dialogue in the Bangladesh RMG Sector’ on the eve of the 4th anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse, they emphasised good governance and ensuring workers’ rights including freedom of association and implementation of the labour act in the export processing zones for addressing the challenges.
Local think-tank Centre for Policy Dialogue organised the dialogue in the capital Dhaka.
‘Workers have to be made fundamental stakeholders in the enterprises where they work and where they are seen as business partners rather than dependent on the market forces in order to establish a balanced relationship between the employees and the employers,’ CPD chairperson Rehman Sobhan said.
The central element is, he said, the sector operates in a deeply unjust global value chain where a $5 shirt made in Bangladesh is sold at $25 at Wal-Mart stores in different countries or at much higher prices in countries such as Sweden.
‘Where exactly does the $20 go? Is this a natural working of the market mechanism or a manifestation of an unjust global order?’ questioned the economist.
The current business model forces suppliers to squeeze their workers as much as they can as they would have to produce the shirt at $5, he said.
He also said that the Rana Plaza disaster brought to light the whole weakness in the governance system, shedding light on a complete lack of oversight and a politically influential property owner who could use its influence to ensure the enforcement mechanism was not put in place.
‘This is the fourth year of the Rana Plaza tragedy and the shame of the country. But I have not noticed, on the anniversary of Rana Plaza over the last four years, any discussion in the highest body of the land, our parliament, to see what progress has been made and what level of accountability has been achieved and exercised by the government,’ Rehman Sobhan said.
Srinivas B Reddy, country director of the International Labour Organisation, said that social dialogue could be a good tool to resolve the mistrust between workers and employers in the RMG sector in Bangladesh.
He said that the recent labour unrest at Ashulia highlighted that there was a need to move from the situation of mistrust and miscommunication between workers and owners to a high quality partnership where the shared goal could be objective and social dialogue could help in this regard.
Social dialogue is beneficial for businesses, workers and the government, he said.
Mentioning the special paragraph of the International Labour Conference of ILO, Reddy said that Bangladesh should address the issue as respect for labour rights was one of the important topics on the Sustainability Compact.
‘It is our challenge to develop confidence among the workers and the employers and we formed Tripartite Consultative Committee to discuss all the issues in the RMG sector,’ labour secretary Mikail Shipar said.
He said that the government would ensure all the rights of workers as per the laws and the ILO convention.
‘A significant progress took place as the government withdrew the draft EPZ laws from parliament day before yesterday for the prime minister’s review,’ Shipar said.
He said that some necessary changes might be made in the laws as per the ILO convention.
The labour secretary, however, said that the three other requirements of the ILC would be addressed properly.
Chowdhury Ashikul Alam, general secretary of the Bangladesh Trade Union Sangha, said that values of labour were in peril in the country due to an absence of democratic norms and values.
A dignified relationship between workers and owners can resolve the problems the country’s industrial sectors are facing, he said.
Benoit-Pierre Laramee, Canadian ambassador to Bangladesh, said that following the Rana Plaza tragedy the consumers mounted pressure on the Canadian government saying that they did not want to buy products from where labour rights were not respected.
He put an emphasis on uniformity of law for the factories in EPZs and beyond.
Nazma Akter, president of the Combined Garment Workers Federation, said that there was corruption in the whole RMG supply chain.
‘We are struggling in the RMG sector not only for trade union and collective bargain but also for a dignified life,’ she said.
Mahmud Hassan Khan, vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said that after Rana Plaza a total of 591 trade unions had been registered in the RMG sector and 231 factories had been closed after the formation of trade unions.
It should be an issue for conducting a research why the factories were closed immediately after the formation of trade unions, he said.
Khondoker Golam Moazzem, research director of the CPD, presented the keynote paper in the event, suggesting raising awareness among the employers and the workers about the importance of social dialogue.
He also recommended addressing the Sustainability Compact’s requirements in respect to labour and developing an action plan for ensuring remediation in the RMG factories which were inspected under a national initiative.
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