Bangladesh’s RMG sector needs to strengthen its labour and working environment in adherence to the UNGPs with a view to better handle the post-graduation challenges. Over the past decade, the export-oriented RMG sector has made a significant progress in strengthening workplace safety. In continuation of this journey, the sector needs to focus on human and labour rights issues taking into account the post-LDC graduation requirements. The United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGPs) have provided a guideline for the industries on how to improve the labour rights practices in the workplace. Such a guideline will be highly beneficial for the RMG enterprises to better structure social compliances in adherence to international standards. The government agencies will get better understanding about how to facilitate factories in strengthening their labour practices.
In this context, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in partnership with the Christian Aid in Bangladesh organised a virtual dialogue titled “Building the RMG Sector in Adherence with the United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGPs)” on Saturday, 9 October 2021.
Dr Fahmida Khatun, Executive Director, CPD delivered the introductory remarks and Mr Pankaj Kumar, Country Director, Christian Aid Bangladesh, delivered the welcome remark at the session. They shared that since the issues are new in the context of Bangladesh, an exploratory study has been conducted on the ‘State of the UNGPs in the RMG Sector of Bangladesh’. Based on a nationally representative sample survey in the RMG enterprises, the study has identified areas of strengths and weaknesses in UNGP practices and thereby put forward a set of suggestions. While mentioning that RMG sector is one of the key sources of foreign exchange earnings, Dr Fahmida suggested that, even though the sector has shown impressive growth during the post-Rana Plaza period, there are a number of social compliance issues that we still need to focus on.
The keynote presentation at the dialogue was made by Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Research Director of CPD. Dr Moazzem mentioned that this study analysed the level of maturity on UNGPs of RMG enterprises on eight key indicators such as policy commitment; governance and embedding; prioritisation of risks and identification of the salient human rights issues; stakeholder engagement; assessing human rights risks; integration and mitigation measures; tracking; and remedy and grievance mechanisms. The study pointed out that Bangladesh’s overall progress in terms of UNGPs is still below the elementary level—mainly at a “negligible” level. Basic facilities for workers are yet to be available across the board in all factories. Disparity in human and labour standards in terms of size, membership and location of factories is well-noticed. Level of overall improvement is more evident in case of the large- and medium-sized factories compared to the small-sized ones.
Also, the study highlighted interesting facts which showed that the factories from Dhaka and Gazipur district have better performance in most human rights aspects than factories from Chattogram and Narayanganj. Moreover, enterprises under the membership of BGMEA are found in a better state than those under the membership of BKMEA. This again reflects a need for removing disparity and exercising equal opportunity for all RMG enterprises.
Considering that the implications are manifold, especially in context of LDC graduation, the study put forward a set of concrete recommendations with a view to institutionalising the UNGPs in the RMG sector. In order to create greater awareness about UNGPs among public agencies, factory management and workers, it is important to undertake special awareness raising and capacity building programmes. Special programmes are required for factories which are lagging behind in terms of labour and human rights practises in terms of size, membership and location. Factories should ensure better transparency practices for which they should mandatorily have their websites. Minimum academic qualifications and professional training to enhance capacity of the management level. There is a need to provide minimum magistracy authority to better inspect the factories. Simultaneously, all types of factory-related inspection and monitoring information and data need to be publicised through organisational websites. Exclusive UNGP-related training programme and curriculum need to be designed, and all issues related to UNGPs need to be included in the public disclosures. Also, non-member factories need to comply with the UNGPs. Gender mainstreaming needs to be ensured as well.
Ms Vidiya Amrit Khan, Director, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), a distinguished discussant at the dialogue, said that organisations under the BGMEA are much transparent regarding audit and compliance related information. Still, she remarked, individual company might have different strategies, and opening/publishing webpage based data cannot be imposed. She commented, the wage rate corresponds with the efficiency of the labour force.
“All the labour laws and policies should be based on the ground of the UN Guiding Principles,” said another discussant Mr Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, Specialist on Worker Activities, ILO. He felt the need for institutionalisation as well as formalisation of the process. He also added that there should be a better understanding between garments owners and trade unions, and all the gaps especially related to legal compliance should be addressed on time.
Ms Sharmin Sultana Moushumi, Advocate, Bangladesh High Court, talked about the issue of safety inspection and re-inspection. Necessary amendment in labour laws and rules need to be considered as well as better functioning of labour courts and other barriers in the courts need to be reduced to complete the cases quickly.
“It is a high time that we should address our problems and challenges with transparency,” commented another distinguished discussant Mr Haroon Ar Rashid, Director, BGMEA. The labour rights issue and efficiency enhancement, according to him, are two areas of challenge. In this regard, he emphasised the importance of a collective effort from the owners, the workers, the government and the NGOs.
Mr Md Mojibul Haque, MP, Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Labour and Employment, Bangladesh Parliament was present as a Special Guest. Shedding light on the need for reducing the gap between the owners and the workers, he said that more seminars and symposiums should be organised in order to address the gap and to increase awareness from both ends. He also felt that the inspection procedure should call for a coordinated effort.
Mr Mohammad Hatem, First Vice-President, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) was the Guest of Honour at the dialogue. Mr Hatem highlighted two important issues—first, childcare facilities, and second, corporate social responsibility (CSR) facilities. He also called for a collective and coordinated effort to reduce various gaps.
Mr Faruque Hassan, President, BGMEA, another Guest of Honour, put some vital issues on the table, including—adhering to the SDGs, developing a unified code of conduct to avoid the audit fatigue, conducting a comprehensive research in concentration with all the local and global standards, and bringing a positive change through apparel diplomacy and thorough research.
Mr Md. Ehsan-E-Elahi, Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, was also present as a Special Guest. He re-asserted the need for a coordinated effort-based mechanism. “The garments owners should be more aware of the labour rights and wellbeing,” he said. He emphasised the speediness in achieving the export targets and operational excellence. While sharing the government’s RMG-related plans and interventions, he said that labour rules are currently being upgraded. Government has developed a long-term action plan for the improvement of labour laws and labour-related practices not only in the RMG sector but also in other sectors.
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) moderated the session.
The session was followed by an open-floor discussion. High-level policy makers, researchers, RMG workers, development practitioners, academics, business leaders, civil society activists, international development partners, and journalists were present at the dialogue.