Industrial safety continues to be a focus area for the ILO- Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director of ILO Bangladesh

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is devoted to promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights, pursuing its founding mission that social justice is essential to universal and lasting peace. In support of its goals, the ILO offers unmatched expertise and knowledge about the world of work, acquired over 100 years of responding to the needs of people everywhere for decent work, livelihoods and dignity.

The ILO aims to ensure that it serves the needs of working women and men by bringing together governments, employers and workers to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programs. The very structure of the ILO, where workers and employers together have an equal voice with governments in its deliberations, shows social dialogue in action. It ensures that the views of the social partners are closely reflected in ILO labour standards, policies and programs. Recently Textile Focus Editor and Publisher M A Islam Riyadh and Special Correspondent Rakibul Islam met Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director of ILO Bangladesh. Mr. Tuomo Poutiainen shared ILO’s Journey in Bangladesh, how they are establishing workplace safety in Bangladesh and many more issues. The conversation is drafted below for our readers.

Photo: Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director of ILO Bangladesh

TF: Could you please share the recent activities of ILO and how ILO helps Bangladesh RMG Sector?

Tuomo Poutiainen: ILO and Bangladesh, we go back together already for 50 years. This year, ILO has its 50-year anniversary of collaborating with Bangladesh. It’s quite a long time since we’ve been working together on many issues around the world of work and decent work. Decent work involves compliance and improvement of working conditions, and also the elimination of child labor, the creation of safe employment, women’s entry into labor market, and a whole wealth of issues around the world of work. But if you’re asking, what have we done recently and what are we doing together with the government of Bangladesh and the garment sector in particular. Then I think the key support to the industry and the government is around creating the enabling environment for working conditions and safety at work to be managed better.  I think that’s the convening sort of argument. Managed better means having the right kind of quality institutions that support working conditions and safety at work to be there. So these quality institutions, are typically government institutions, such as the labor inspection system.

Eight years ago, it wasn’t so easy to talk about why it is important to have compliance systems, why it’s important to have safety management systems, and why safety committees and participation committees matter. But now I would say it is quite easy to talk about these issues. And the industry and the government have invested quite a lot in improving processes.

And then secondly, I think it’s important to look into how and what are the reforms and what are the changes in relation to the private sector and particularly the garment sector. So I can say that in my time here, I think there’s been a huge attitudinal change in the industries for the better. So maybe eight years ago, it wasn’t so easy to talk about why it is important to have compliance systems, why it’s important to have safety management systems, and why safety committees and participation committees matter. But now I would say it is quite easy to talk about these issues. And the industry and the government have invested quite a lot in improving processes. And so there’s a huge change process which is very much internalized by the private sector and we see a lot of positive changes in relation to the situation in the garment sector. Obviously more can be done and not all factories and suppliers in the industry are investing in the same manner. But generally speaking, there’s quite a big improvement process that has happened over the years.

TF: What kind of activities are going on from ILO for the workers?

Tuomo Poutiainen: In a practical sense, the ILO works very much with BGMEA, BKMEA, BTMA and the industry associations. we have a big program called Better Work, which is our biggest investment directly working on the factory floors. It’s a flagship program of ILO run together with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group. We are working in factories together with the factory management to improve the conditions and also to make sure that the HR, safety and other quality management systems are in place so that the environment at work is compliant with the labour law. Because this is really what modern-day businesses should look like. If you want to have performance, productive, functional and competitive business in today’s world, you do need to invest in these processes. The ILO is organizing various kinds of training and capacity-building programs are at all levels including issues such as gender-based violence and maternity protection.

We have an initiative called Mothers at Work looking at improving maternity benefits. We also have initiatives around improving middle-level management and particularly introducing more women to become middle-level managers.

We have an initiative called Mothers at Work looking at improving maternity benefits. We also have initiative called GEAR which is empowering more women to become middle-level managers. we believe in working together with the management of the factories to establish the right kind of management systems, something that is internalized in the factory, and something that is managed as part of the overall business processes of the factory. We also have some initiatives with workers’ organizations looking at how workers understand better their roles and responsibilities. And also, if there are problems, how can workers address those problems and where can they go to get support if they have issues that they wish to raise?

Photo: Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director of ILO Bangladesh; M A Islam Riyadh, Editor, Textile Focus; Md. Rakibul Islam, Special Correspondent, Textile Focus (from left)

TF: What about the Employment Injury System and how it will help the Employer?

Tuomo Poutiainen: First of all, it’s something really recent and new that has been launched in June this year. And this is a tremendously positive development in terms of accident protection in Bangladesh.  What the Employment Injury System (EIS) and the Scheme are intended to do is to create a new system where there will be long-term compensation for workers who have accidents, disabilities or in cases of death.  Currently, the system allows and provides only one-time lump sum payments. But in a modern employment injury system and as part of establishing a modern worker protection system, it is important that there is a continuum of payments. So you start to have monthly payments instead of only one-time payments. which provides also much better protection for the dependents of injured workers and also the workers themselves.  This is a really positive development that many other countries in the region have and now Bangladesh is developing also.

TF: After the Accord Alliance’s involvement, the safety situation has changed. How ILO is working with the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) for further development.

Tuomo Poutiainen: Industrial safety continues to be a focus area for the ILO as well as for many other organizations who are trying to help Bangladeshi industries to grow and become safer. The development of the RSC is a tremendously positive development. We are still learning and seeing how the RSC is developing its work and how the benefits of the experiences of Accord and Alliance and the almost eight to nine years of investments in industrial safety can be continued through the RSC.  At the same time, it is important that safety at work is not only provided through the RSC, but the government and the government agencies that are mandated and have the role of oversight when it comes to industrial safety also have the capacity to do their job and to play their role in terms of ensuring industrial safety in Bangladesh. And that’s where organizations such as the Ministry of Labor, the Labor Inspectorate, and the industrial safety unit they have been developing, need to work to establish a coherent industrial safety framework for Bangladesh that goes beyond the ready-made garment industry. Bangladesh is changing rapidly. There are many emerging industries, economic zones, and a process of diversification of trade. All these industrial sectors need to be covered by one coherent, competently managed industrial safety framework.

If we have the laws, we have the standards, and we have the quality regulatory institutions set up by the government; we also have the private sector which understands workers’ rights and is capable of introducing safety and management systems and handling worker and workplace issues. That’s the best branding of Bangladesh in my view.

If we have the laws, we have the standards, and we have the quality institutions set up by the government; we also have the private sector which understands workers’ rights and is capable of introducing safety and management systems, and handling workers’ and workplace issues. That’s the best branding of Bangladesh in my view.

And that’s also the work that the ILO is very much willing to continue to support with our partners. We will continue to build and help the government to build the quality of these institutions, so that there are competent, transparent and effective labor market governance, labor inspection systems and industrial safety systems in place, to serve the industries and the workers alike. That’s one major area of our work. And the second area of work is to continue to build partnerships with the private sector including garment, ceramics, plastics, light manufacturing, agriculture and food processing, etc. All these industries need to be mindful of managing issues around safety and labor conditions harmoniously through dialogue and cooperation between employers and workers. I truly believe that the lessons learned that the garment industry has generated are very applicable and usable for other industrial sectors as well. And thirdly, I think we will continue to work on skilling. The country requires a skilled labor force to address the diverse needs of the new industries. So, investments in skills development, and technical and vocational training are crucial so that young people acquire better abilities to get decent jobs, productive, safe and good jobs.