Sultan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, talks about the current state of labour rights in the aftermath of the collapse of Rana Plaza, which has drawn much attention to the improvement of workplace safety, especially in the apparel sector, in an interview with Nahid Riyasad
New Age: Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies has been advocating for labour rights for quite some time now? Tell us about the background history of BILS?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: The idea and the organisation came into being during the 1995; however, we have started our formal operation in 1998. Following the democratic revolution of Bangladesh during the late 90’s, we have observed that the very essence of the revolution is missing and it failed to put emphasis on improving the lives of the workers. Workers rights were violated rampantly. Quite a few public sector industries were privatised, some were even shut-down during this period. In such a situation, we faced the demand from labour organisations to give them academic support. We commenced our journey in order to support the trade unions to ensure the minimum living standard of workers in different industries. Moreover, we were focused on analysing government policies, publishing research on labour related issues involving workers themselves. In short, we wanted to provide the workers with a think-tank or intellectual support to protect their rights as well as conduct independent research on labour issues.
New Age: Following the Rana Plaza incident, the apparel industry in Bangladesh got global and local attentions which are, unfortunately, overshadowing other sectors. However, it seems like the attentions are largely focused on improving work place safety in apparel industries. In 2016, we have seen many murderous incidents taking place in other industrial sectors. Fire at a packaging industry —Tampaco Foils Ltd itself killed 40 workers. How do you see this issue of asymmetrical distribution of attention between different industrial sectors?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: This is an issue of preference and business; by business, I mean foreign export oriented business. In order to satisfy this $30 billion industry, government and foreign corporations are working hand in hand, which narrowly entertain the interest of apparel sector workers. For example, death of construction workers is common. These deaths happen routinely, and they die in small number; therefore, it never gets the same kind of attention. Bangladesh’s road safety is arguably the worst in the world. In addition to passengers, transportation workers are the first to take the death blow during an accident. However, in Bangladesh, the main focus of the government is to give a safe-haven to the foreign export businesses. It is not entirely our own decision. The RMG industry oriented interventions are imposed on us from foreign powers. The government bodies entitled with these responsibilities are mainly focusing on RMG to satisfy and fulfil the demand and expectations of foreign buyers. International organisations have adapted a very strict perspective here, which only deals with their interest rather than the betterment of the entire labour force of the industry in our country.
New Age: How do you think we should work to bring changes not only in apparel industries, but industrial sector wide changes?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: The very first point of this should be ensuring security to the workers of any sector across the country. Ensuring this security, workers rights should be the major concern of any owner. We need to keep in mind that the victims are not necessarily always labourers. A pedestrian has lost life during the Tampaco incident; a school teacher lost his life during another industrial accident, who was just passing by. The lack of security is not only affecting the workers but also people surrounding the factories. Worker’s security can never be partial, rather an overall solid system.
New Age: Why do you think despite media attention and public protest ‘industrial accidents’, at New Age, we prefer to call it structural killing, continue to take place?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: Should we trace back to the reasons of the accidents and the frequency, we will end up with one answer, which is lack of governance. Now couple that with zero accountability, we get a deadly combination. In our history, no industrialist has ever been tried for the accidents occurred in their factories, let alone a complete verdict. This tendency or culture has caused a serious damage. An owner has no notion that s/he is responsible to ensure workplace safety, and in case, s/he fails to do so, s/he will be criminally charged. However, owners are not the one to take blames exclusively. Concerned government departments have to lake their share of the blame also. Following an accident, investigating teams visit the place and submit reports, they are the accountable ones to ensure the needed legal and other steps are taken. It is on the basis of their reports future measure to prevent accident supposed to take place, which we have never seen in reality. Lack of governance, as well as accountability is two major reasons for the tragic incidents in our industrial sector.
New Age: In addition to the amendment of compensation clause in our labour law, there is also an urgent need to improve ‘industrial accident’ management system. Do you agree?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: There are still four unidentified dead bodies at the DMCH morgue awaiting DNA test results, all are victims of Tampaco fire. On the site of Rana Plaza, you will still find families of missing worker still waiting. Identifying bodies were a major concern right after the Rana Plaza incident, which could have been avoided, if there was an effective post disaster management system was in place. All of these are clear indication of our inability to manage a post disaster situation in industrial sector. Reports are given on every incident by investigating officers to the concerned authorities. Apart from the Bangladesh Fire Services and Civil Defence, no other agencies have received upgraded equipments or training to improve their performance in disaster situations. In this regard, I would like to say that we are still unprepared to handle these situations. What we can do to overcome the situation is a long term process.
New Age: How well equipped are we to handle the large number of injured workers?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: This is another unfortunate, dark side of our industrial sector. We do not have any kind of Disability Assessment Cell. Following any industrial tragedy, you will find a large number of people bracing the unfortunate life of disability. However, no authority is there to accurately assess the level of disability. This means that the labourers are not ensured of their right to exact amount of compensation. In the case of Rana plaza, we have seen the amount of compensation also varied from situation to situation, for example, there are families who have received Tk. 5 millions and there are families who have got none. To handle the compensation properly, an assessment cell is very much needed.
New Age: What are the major obstacles today in ensuring workers safety?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: The first major concern I would point out is the foreign intervention. This means, whatever is happening is done to serve the interest of foreign corporations rather than our own good. Such reformation will not be a solid one in the long run. We need to create a master plan considering our own reality as well as resources to ensure industrial-sector wide workers safety and change.
New Age: Your point about the interest of foreign business compels me to ask you about ACCORD. Heightened debates are taking place around its renewal for another term. What are your thoughts in this regards?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: ACCORD was established with a business plan in their mind which coincidentally matches with our interest. When western buyers started to face criticism about their indifference towards workers rights violation in Bangladesh, some of them started to refuse Bangladeshi garment products. In such a situation, both global buyer and Bangladeshi owner were at risk of losing business. To resolve this crisis, to ensure their business, they have formed ACCORD. They have nearly ended their three year term here. This is not a project that it needs extended term. What we have done wrong is we let ACCORD work independently. We should have considered this issue from the beginning and made ACCORD a part of our concerned department. They should have worked under our government rather than being independent. Their experience should be a part of our monitoring cell and they should co-ordinate their work according to Bangladesh authority. As they are separated, we are not benefiting from their expertise or research. As ACCORD was a response to the buyer’s demand, we should consider them as a business entity; rather they have become a political one. ACCORD should be asked about their advancement in the past three years of their tenure in Bangladesh.
New Age: Aside from the multinational’s interest, there is also another problem particular to Bangladesh that is a good majority of our law makers are also industry owners.
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: This creates an overall imbalance in our industrial sector. It is surprising that this inherent conflict of interest is not addressed when discussing changes in the labour law. The industry owner will sit in the parliament as law maker to discuss the labour law. For this reason, labour laws have been amended several times but the benefit goes to the owners every time.
New Age: Speaking of industry owners’ influence on labour law, what are your thoughts on the recently included provision of ‘participation committee’ that granted some form of trade union rights. I am asking this question, particularly taking into account a complaint of the workers that they are forced to do overtime due to poor pay cheques. This leaves very limited time for them to take part in trade union activities.
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: This is a very valid complaint and concern. The minimum wage is still so miserably low that they have no choice but to work over-time. This has become a vicious cycle. The more hours workers work, the more exhausted they are meaning that s/he has no time for her/himself. This is not unintentional on part of the owner, this has been done very meticulously that the workers don’t get enough time to think about their abysmal living and working condition. The industries, even after being financially stable and profit making venture, are not offering the workers accommodation. This could have been a great relief on their thin pay checks. Factory owners refused to provide accommodation fearing that they might be united against the exploitation of their labour and lives.
New Age: What should be done to bring industrial sector wide change?
Sultan Uddin Ahmed: The first thing the government needs to do is to establish accountability of the owners. The pending legal processes against factory management responsible for past ‘industrial accidents’ must be solved in a timely and judicious manner. Without proper accountability and implementation of the law, every other measure will go in vain. The government should also adopt an approach that include all industrial sectors and informal labour sectors, not just apparel industries. Proper research is absolutely a must to understand the real local need, instead of arbitrarily taking global solutions. The government is giving incentives to the RMG owners who are 100 per cent export oriented. This is utterly ridiculous, they are already rich. The incentives should go to factories that are using less energy and using eco-friendly technologies and has improved workplace safety. Last but not the least, there is an urgent need of co-ordination between existing organisations and government cells working on labour rights issues. It is necessary because, the task at hand is not something any individual organisation can complete, but a team work has the potential to ensure a safe working place for all the workers.
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