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Bangladesh garment makers move to right labour wrongs

Publication Date : 01-08-2012


Against the background of growing concern over labour rights violation in Bangladesh, garment makers of the country yesterday said they had taken the issue seriously and started to improve work environment and maintain compliance in factories.

They said garment makers have already engaged the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) “Better Work Programme” to ensure labour rights. An international expert is now designing a framework of the programme.

Many factories have graduated participatory committees to take better care of workers. The participatory committees had the equal facilities of a trade union, said factory owners at a discussion with The Daily Star at the newspaper's office in the capital.

The garment makers also demanded fair and quick investigation into the murder of Aminul Islam, labour leader of Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity. Recently, different rights groups and the US ambassador to Bangladesh have demanded a rapid investigation into the killing.

The issue of Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement (Ticfa) also came up in the discussion. Garment makers said it should be dealt at the state level.

The factory owners also expressed grave concern over the recent labour unrest in the Ashulia industrial belt.

In June, the factories in Ashulia on the outskirt of capital Dhaka had to suspend production for 10 days. The owners said the disruption in production was a serious blow to the country's image as the second largest garment maker of the world.

During the unrest, many buyers had threatened to shift their orders to other countries, said Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, president of Bangladesh Grament Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).

He said Bangladesh had improved a lot on labour standards and work environment. “The owners have come to realise that they must take care of workers for the sustainability of the industry.”

According to Mohiuddin, 600 garment factories in Bangladesh have participatory committees while the rest 5,500 registered factories have welfare bodies. “The participatory committees have been a platform for the workers where they can raise their problems.”

He said BGMEA was running two hospitals and 12 clinics for workers and many schools for their children. “Every factory has its own medical facility for workers.”

The BGMEA was now working with different development organisations to prevent diseases like tuberculosis and HIV AIDS among workers, he added.

“When Bangladeshi camel jockeys had returned to the country, we rehabilitated them. We have also employed the transgender,” said Mohiuddin, adding that they had introduced life insurance for workers.

The BGMEA will begin the second edition of its talent hunt from August 5. Last year, the event recognised 10 best singers from the RMG sector, said Mohiuddin.

“There has been significant improvement in owner-worker relationship which was not there even a decade ago. When it comes to work environment, we are better than Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Lesotho. But we cannot sell it,” said the BGMEA president.

The garment makers also pointed out that buyers should be ethical instead of looking for opportunities to force apparel makers to cut price.

Mohiuddin said although Bangladesh's garment makers were doing a great job, their contribution was not promoted well. "We are failing to brand our country through a massive campaign," he said.

He also said there was propaganda that international buyers are losing interest in Bangladeshi garment items. "It is not true. We have talked to the CEOs of major companies. They said they were still willing to buy products made in Bangladesh."

A.K. Azad, president of the country's apex trade body Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), said the international buyers operating in Bangladesh in a meeting with the labour minister last week had urged the government to increase workers' wage by 10 per cent to avert further unrest in the industry.

The buyers feared that the orders would not be executed if there was further violence in the RMG sector.

He said buyers were also concerned about the country's political situation. "After the unrest in Ashulia, they are closely monitoring everything, including the political development."

Fazlul Hoque, president of Bangladesh Employers Federation, blamed local influential politicians for the unrest in Ashulia.

He said they would sit with officials of ILO Dhaka office tomorrow to discuss the latest development regarding the Better Work Programme.

The garment makers said although the labour leaders regularly talked about establishing trade unions at the factories, there was no demand from the workers to do so at factory level.

He also questioned the role of labour leaders and urged them to play a positive role. "During the unrest in Ashulia, no labour leaders went there to ask the workers to stop the violence."

Abdus Salam Murshedy, president of Exporters Association of Bangladesh, said Ashulia-based factories are of the ideal kind, where the managements strictly maintain compliance.

"Still, a majority of unrests take place there," he said, calling for an investigation into the matter.

He also criticised the central bank for its recent circular on loan classification, which, he said, would hurt the industry.

Mohammad Hatem, vice president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said there was no congenial environment in Bangladesh to allow trade unionism at the factories.

"Our experience with trade union is bitter. About 130 factories started trade unions. Of them, 80 are now closed," he said.

Annisul Huq, former president of FBCCI, said the country's garment owners want a fair and quick investigation into the killing of Aminul Islam. "We want the killers of the labour leaders arrested."

Mohiuddin said although Bangladeshi exporters paid the highest duties to enter into the US apparel market after Cambodia, the exporters are not receiving good treatment from the world's biggest economy.

Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, also spoke at the discussion.


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