There seems to be a lack of political will to push through government backed reforms in Bangladesh

There seems to be a lack of political will to push through government backed reforms in Bangladesh

The over-riding message from a review last week to look at ongoing efforts to improve worker rights and factory safety in Bangladesh's ready-made garment and knitwear industry seems to be that "a lot of work still remains to be done."

It's the same message, in fact, that accompanied an earlier review in July to mark the first anniversary of the Sustainability Compact - signed by the Bangladesh government, the European Union (EU), the US and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

And perhaps most worrying is that the outstanding issues that require "urgent" attention by the Bangladesh government include some that were earmarked as a priority three months ago.

There's no doubt significant improvements have been made since the Compact was set up last year, including an amended Bangladesh Labour Act, the registration of a staggering 236 new trade unions, preparations for a Better Work Programme Bangladesh, processes for factory safety inspections and reviews, the elimination of customs duties on imports of fire safety equipment, and the hiring of additional safety inspectors.

But while government progress on improving worker safety and labour rights in Bangladesh remains painfully slow, the country's commerce minister Tofail Ahmed came away from last week's meeting in Brussels describing it as "successful" and adding that officials were "satisfied" that Bangladesh has fulfilled almost all the conditions initially set out.

That's most certainly not the impression given in statements released by the European Commission. Its list of outstanding issues runs to 26 points covering labour rights, building and worker safety, and responsible business conduct.

Among its concerns are unresolved labour law reforms, and ongoing difficulties for workers to exercise their "fundamental labour rights" and set up trade unions. "The right to strike should be protected, and efforts are required to ensure that international labour standards such as freedom of association and collective bargaining are upheld," it says, adding the Bangladesh Labour Act still needs to be enforced, extending the same rights to workers in Export Processing Zones (EPZ).

Other shortfalls include the need for ongoing education and training on labour rights, as well as more open and detailed information on garment factories and the inspections carried out so far. An extra 189 safety inspectors are due to be hired by the end of 2014, but work must also continue to recruit new ones "as a matter of urgency."

The EC also highlights the need for safety assessments to be completed on all active export-oriented ready-made garment and knitwear factories, with follow-up work to ensure they comply with corrective action plans and that support is available for factories requiring remediation.

"No place for complacency"
A separate but hard-hitting 'Bangladesh Development Update' report also released this month by The World Bank warns "there is no place for complacency."

It describes the government's response to implementing changes to the Labour Law as "extremely slow with a weak monitoring mechanism," and blames "government red tape" for stalling the recruitment of factory inspectors.

It also criticises the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) for so far failing to develop a promised worker database, noting: "The association and its respective members should be more proactive in maintaining the credibility of the commitments made to transform garment manufacturing into a socially compliant industry."

The World Bank also looks at wider challenges, explaining that "lack of infrastructure will reduce compliance if not addressed urgently."

Issues include water and equipment shortages, unregulated buildings and traffic congestion, a lack of suitable land for factory relocation, to energy shortages (power and gas) in industrial areas - on top of which it takes some 404 days to get an electricity connection - and a scarcity of workers for factories trying to relocate.

"Although the government plans to develop a garment industrial park to address these impediments, there has not been any visible progress in this regard," it adds.

The World Bank believes domestic factors dominate near-term risks in Bangladesh. While the main concern is a resurgence of political unrest - another is that the "lack of visible progress in upgrading labour and safety standards in garment factories could trigger loss of preferential access to EU markets" - which currently account for 60.2% of Bangladesh's garment exports.

But it also implores global brands working on the separate retailer-backed Accord and the Alliance safety initiatives to "improve coordination on factory inspection and shift gear towards assisting the implementation of remediation measures."

It explains: "Lack of coordination among the global brands is leading to inspection fatigue for some manufacturers and creating confusion," especially for factories that supply members of both groups. Duplication of inspections creates "additional burden for factory owners and questioning the integrity of the overall inspection process. Furthermore, there is a growing concern on the financing of the remedial works. In some cases buyers are allegedly not getting involved as promised."

Other outstanding issues
Other stakeholders in the Bangladesh garment industry have also highlighted a number of outstanding issues where the government should be playing a key role, but again seems to be lagging.

Unanswered questions include who will provide financing to help factory owners undertake remediation work - and who will manage remediation of factories not covered by the Alliance and the Accord?

The issue of subcontracting also remains largely unaddressed, with decisions needed on how these factories will be regulated and who will take ultimate responsibility for this sector.

There are also numerous agencies - the Directorate of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), Ministry of Labor (MOL), the Capital Development Authority of Bangladesh (Rajuk) and the Directorate of Fire Service and Civil Defense (DFSCD) - with overlapping authority and little or no coordination, all of which adds to the complexity and confusion when it comes to making decisions.

Perhaps the most important challenge of the many that remain is to ensure that momentum on improvements is maintained once support from external stakeholders comes to an end, and that the government of Bangladesh commits to a medium and long-term strategy for reform.

But for that to happen, and based on its track record to date, there needs to be a monumental shift to reverse the lack of political will, inadequate intra-governmental co-ordination, corruption and the extraordinary dominance of the garment sector in government that seems to be hampering progress so far.