Close to a year after the Rana Plaza disaster, progress on improving worker safety and labour rights in Bangladesh has been painfully slow – but who is responsible for the delays?

An analysis of this week’s US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, entitled “Prospects for Democratic Reconciliation and Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh”, makes for mostly depressing reading.

The testimony given suggests that a combination of intransigence on the part of the Bangladeshi government, and a slow-footed, unco-ordinated response from some apparel companies, is so far frustrating the efforts of broad-based organisations such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The US was swift to withdraw Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) support from Bangladesh in June last year, just two months after Rana Plaza. True, the garment sector didn’t benefit from GSP in the first place, but it aspired to do so – and the measure was designed to sting all of those involved into taking action.

As a result, an Action Plan was drawn up to improve labour, fire and building standards; to remove obstacles to worker rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining; and to reform labour laws.

In addition, the US has worked with the EU, Bangladesh and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to draw up a Sustainability Compact committing the country to improving worker rights and safety.

And then there are the initiatives undertaken with and by the companies who source so much of their merchandise from Bangladesh, making the US the largest single export destination for Bangladeshi apparel.

What progress has there been?
Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department, set out the action to date: nearly 100 unions registered in 2013, up from just one each year in 2012 and 2011; nearly all criminal cases dropped against labour activists; labour rights NGOs successfully registered.

But it’s the direct prevention of future Rana Plazas and Tazreens which cause more concern: the Bangladeshi government has so far completed only 200 structural soundness and 120 fire safety inspections, in a country of about 4,000 garment factories. 

Biswal added that “there is still much to be done”, telling the committee: “Plans to hire more inspectors and carry out more labour, fire and building inspections are lagging.

“The majority of inspections and remediation efforts are occurring under the direction of private sector initiatives.

“Gaps remain between national law and international standards, no action has been taken to bring Export Processing Zones (EPZs) into conformity with international standards, and concerns remain over harassment of labour activists and the investigation of the murder of [union activist] Aminul Islam.”

The separate status of EPZs was also raised by Eric Biel, Associate Deputy Undersecretary for International Labor Affairs in the US Department of Labor.

Factories in these zones, he pointed out, remain “outside the reach” of labour and safety inspectors covering the rest of the country, and unions are barred, with the EPZ governing authority retaining “nearly complete discretion” on labour-management relations.

Praise for the private sector... 
If the picture painted is an unsatisfactory one, it is also one in which the role of the private sector becomes all the more crucial – with Biel praising the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh as “historic”.

The committee heard from the Accord, in the shape of Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium, a witness signatory – but also from Ellen Tauscher, chairman of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

The Accord is an international gathering of 151 apparel companies and retailers, across 21 countries, but also – crucially – including two global unions, eight garment worker unions or union bodies and four international labour rights organisations.

It covers 1,800 factories in Bangladesh and more than 2m workers – over half of the Bangladeshi garment workforce.

Meanwhile, the Alliance covers 26 companies, nearly 700 factories and about 1.28m workers – but has no direct input from unions or outside organisations.

It essentially includes companies in North America, such as Walmart and Gap, which for various reasons declined to join the larger collective – partly at least over fears of costly litigation in the US and Canadian courts.

Nova admitted that the inspection task facing the Accord was a “massive undertaking”, with more than 5,000 initial inspections planned, and was “taking substantial time”, but added that a safety standard had been agreed and inspections would commence in “large volume” this month.

“As a labour rights advocate, I personally wish the work was moving faster,” he added. “However, I must tell you candidly, and based on a detailed knowledge of the work to date, that it is moving as fast as it can.”

...but potential confusion
Addressing the potential confusion and unwieldiness of having two separate private sector initiatives, he did not directly criticise the Alliance, but admitted: “Everyone involved with the Accord would prefer that there were one initiative.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and a former child worker who has spent time in prison for her labour rights activities.

A friend of murdered activist Aminul Islam, Akter called for a “transparent” investigation into his death – widely believed to be the responsibility of Bangladeshi security forces.

She admitted that the Center’s official registration had been reinstated, and that most charges against union leaders – including herself – had been dropped, before claiming that she and others remained under government surveillance.

But Akter’s strongest words were reserved for the American companies which, she said, had yet to offer any compensation to those injured or bereaved in the Tazreen fire – singling out Walmart and Sears for refusing to pay on the grounds that the garment production there was “unauthorised”.

“These callous companies are failing to accept their responsibility to pay compensation, even while many of the survivors are unable to work and are unable to afford the medical treatment they need,” she told the committee.

Similarly, none of the US companies who had done business with Rana Plaza factories – Children’s Place, Cato Fashions, JC Penney, Walmart again – had paid any compensation to victims.

“I have travelled all the way from Bangladesh to be here today to ask members of the US Government to do what you can to call on these American brands and retailers to immediately join the Rana Plaza Arrangement on Compensation, which is facilitated by the ILO,” she said.

As for her thoughts on the work of the Accord and the Alliance, Akter was unequivocal in her support for the former – and her lack of knowledge of the latter.

“My awareness on the ground in Bangladesh of this [Alliance] initiative is minimal,” she told the committee, adding that her organisation had never had a meeting with its representatives, nor did it have any involvement from unions or other “meaningful worker-representative bodies”.

Citing an instance where the Alliance had interviewed factory workers, but claiming that these workers had been pre-selected by the management, Akter said: “These examples indicate that at least as of yet there is no meaningful difference between the Alliance and the corporate-controlled ‘corporate social responsibility’ programmes that have failed Bangladeshi garment workers in the past, and have left behind thousands of dead and injured workers.”

And, in an even more stark warning, she added: “I fear that until the largest US companies that buy from Bangladesh – companies such as Walmart, Gap and VF Corporation – join the Accord, garment workers will continue to die on the job in my country.”