Social dialogues to prevent disasters like Rana Plaza: analysts

Star Business Report

Social dialogues can be introduced in the garment sector for establishing healthy industrial relations between workers and managements, said analysts yesterday.

Foreign retailers should ensure a price that would facilitate maintaining decent work and social dialogue, said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue.

He went on to urge the authorities of the sourcing companies’ home countries to put emphasis on ensuring social dialogue in the supplying countries while procuring products.

Moazzem’s comments came at a discussion on ‘catalysing social dialogue in the RMG sector of Bangladesh’.

The CPD and the International Labour Organisation jointly organised the dialogue on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza industrial disaster that took lives of more than 1,134 workers and left nearly 2,500 injured.

The private think-tank conducted a review of the initiatives taken in the aftermath of the disaster. Some 15 injured workers were picked at random and interviewed.

Moazzem shared the findings of the study at the event.

Of the 15 workers interviewed, 6 were jobless four years on, and the average income of those who managed to find themselves gainfully employed was lower than what they earned previously in most cases.

The study found that 12 workers took treatment in the last one year and their average monthly expenditure for treatment was about Tk 3,400, which comes to Tk 41,000 in a year.

The progress of inspection of 1,549 factories under the national initiatives was highly disappointing. There was no follow-up inspection on the remediation work after the inspection carried out by Buet and other organisations with the support of the ILO.

“The remaining period of the stipulated timeline of Accord and Alliance is crucial in order to complete the remediation works,” Moazzem said.

Incidences of unrest are higher in BGMEA member factories while lesser number of incidents takes place in factories in Narayanganj and Chittagong, he said.

Moazzem suggested an effective social dialogue between the manufacturers, buyers, brands, union leaders and workers for better labour rights and for strengthening workplace safety.

Workers have to be made fundamental partners in the enterprises where they work in order to establish a balanced relationship between the employers and employees, said Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the CPD.

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 his weight to ensure the enforcement mechanism is not put in place, he said.

“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 whether progress has been made and what level of accountability has been achieved and exercised.”

This is a question that the lawmakers should address, Sobhan said.

The central element is that 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 or at much higher prices in countries such as Sweden, he said.

“Where exactly does the $20 go? Is this a natural working of the market mechanism or a manifestation of an unjust global order?”

He said 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.

“Unless there is a major investigation of a professional nature, a political nature and an international nature to de-construct the value chain and see how it can be made to work, I personally don’t believe discussions will not produce any result.”

If the structural problems that were at the heart of the Rana Plaza disaster are not addressed, many of the problems will reoccur in the future and people will forget about these issues five years from now, Sobhan added.

Trade union leaders, researchers, diplomats, businessmen and manufacturers from home and abroad attended the dialogue that was moderated by Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow of the CPD.

Srinivas Reddy, country director of ILO, Bangladesh echoed the same.

Recent unrest in the Ashulia area took place because of mistrust between workers and managements.

Social dialogue will help reduce mistrust and establish a healthy relationship between stakeholders, he added. Babul Akter, a union leader, said almost all the reforms in the garment sector have been done under pressure from the international communities and retailers.  The factory owners are not so much interested for reforms by their own, he said.

Nazma Akter, president of the Sommilito Garment Sramik Federation, a workers’ right platform, said this is not the time for internal fights.

“We need to know how to overcome the challenges. The whole supply chain has the challenge of corruption,” Akter said.

Mahmud Hasan Khan, vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said after the Rana Plaza building collapse a total of 591 trade unions were registered.

Of the unionised factories, 260 are running and 331 have been shut down.

“We should conduct a research on whether the factories have been closed down because of trade unions or not.”