Can the Better Work program help Bangladesh factories conform to an agreed standard for core worker rights, international standards and conventions?
By Kelly Eisenhardt
For years, international worker rights organizations have known that there was a need to provide structure and training for factory owners and Bangladesh’s most vulnerable workers. With a spotlight shining on 4,000 factories in crisis in Dhaka and after 1,100 deaths in the fall of Rana Plaza, the time for implementing such a program has never felt more critical. I chat with Amy Luinestra about the Better Work program recently implemented in Bangladesh by the International Labour Organization.
Kelly Eisenhardt: What reforms would you consider to be fundamental in Bangladesh to protect vulnerable workers?
Amy Luinestra: There is a lot of work to be done in order to protect the most vulnerable workers in Bangladesh. Some of the bigger issues include worker freedom of association, helping with implementing new trade unions, aiding change in existing unions, working with the Bangladesh government to enact legal reform and enforcement of existing laws as well as educating and training Bangladesh factory management on safe practices.
That is a lot for any organization to take on. How do the ILO and IFC plan to work together on the Better Work program? Can you describe the roles and responsibilities of each?
The partnership between the ILO and the IFC goes back to our joint project for worker rights in Cambodia. Back in 2011, we conducted a feasibility study that consisted of 10 criteria, including economy size, growth rate and industry support as a whole for vulnerable workers. We assessed the level of commitment to stakeholders, the types of government involvement, whether or not trade unions existed, employer fair practices knowledge and employee assessments. Even then, Bangladesh was determined as an area where we needed to create a program.
The ILO and the IFC each have their own areas of expertise. The ILO’s expertise is in labor standards, international labor laws and worker management, as well as health and safety and fire and safety. The ILO provides an organized voice for business and workers, and has the ability to advise governments on policy and possible approaches to solving some of the major issues. The IFC’s area of expertise, on the other hand, lies in private sector development, market based approaches and specifically the running of programs over a period of time in a way that is sustainable, with cost recovery, and using evidence-based approaches.
Each organization has its strengths and works well with one another. The ILO works directly with the ministries of labor in various countries while the IFC works with different trade counterparts in government, as well as in commerce, industry, and trade. Both are needed for working on a viable solution in the garment industry because they can leverage their counterparts to build a more complete solution.
What are the top priorities for Better Work Bangladesh in the short term?
There are some priorities that are obvious. Fire safety and building safety are at the top of the list. We need to help factory owners and managers understand how to make the sector safer for their workers and provide basic training. We need to help the workers have a voice and be empowered regarding their rights. They need to understand that they have the right to refuse to go into a building that is unsafe. Worker rights awareness is very high on the priority list.
A big reason for Better Work to be in Bangladesh is to help change the worker and management culture at factories and understand how to make it safer and compliant.
Can you describe some of the activities that are occurring now or set to begin?
Right now we are continually digging deeper into needs analysis, the fundamental issues, and how the current culture is influenced by the industrial relations in the country. We also want to understand how brand influence shapes the culture. Conducting a needs analysis that exists on a reasonable scale is challenging.
The whole process is very resource intensive. We have to face the same issues that the workers do. Getting from factory to factory in gridlocked traffic, going into high-rise buildings that potentially have safety issues, and trying to cluster audits so that we can manage multiple factories in one day is a challenge. We do try to schedule several audits in the same area at the same time in order to minimize some of the challenges but that can be very difficult in Dhaka. Aligning our needs analysis with the ongoing and ever changing fundamental needs is a continual process.
What types of activities will the program conduct at the worker, factory and government level?
At the worker level, we will be training workers on building skills for how to deal with management. We’ll be teaching them how to raise issues and making sure that they are paid fairly, correctly, and on time.
At the factory level, we will help in assessing compliance to labor laws, educating about core international labor standards, and advising on worker and management dialogue. Bangladesh workers and management need help setting up committees for communication, as there is a hierarchical cultural structure enforce. Understanding what is needed to achieve and maintain compliance would be the next step and keeping accurate records at the factory is detrimental. As the factory matures in their process, the workers can take a bigger part in the dialogue.
At the government level, we will help by working with worker organizations the ministries of labor and commerce, and providing input on their project advisory committees.
The Better Work program in Cambodia was considered successful by many because it corrected many of the wage issues and added maternity leave and annual leave to the employee contract. Will the same program be replicated in Bangladesh; if so, how are the efforts similar?
We learned a lot and redesigned a lot with Cambodia. But it was still only a monitoring exercise.
Factories have the option of opting in or not, It doesn’t have the intense advisory work that Bangladesh requires. Vietnam, Indonesia and Jordan are closer models. Vietnam is most similar as it is a large-scale effort and also has the advisory model and worker management commitment that we plan to implement in Bangladesh.
The success factor is an agreed standard for core worker rights, international standards and conventions.
Another similarity between Bangladesh and Vietnam is the connection between governments and multi-stakeholder emphasis. Levi's knows more about factories than the government and governments don't know as much as an independent brand audit. Better Work helps all these parties create a closed loop. Wages and workers will be aligned with national labor laws to form one standard.
Additionally, much of the program is based on worker management dialogue efforts. Once workers are educated on how to do that, we can’t take that back. The genie is out of the bottle.
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