Although the foreign brands and buyers are vocal about fair wages of garments workers of Bangladesh, they hardly talk about fair price of ready-made garments (RMG), representatives of the country's RMG sector and experts said.
The buyers should realise that in order to pay fair wages to workers, they should also pay fair price for the products, the RMG sector leaders said on Thursday, during a dialogue organised by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).
The buyers' position was revealed after the pandemic hit, when they cancelled orders worth billions of dollars, and delayed payments, they said.
The virtual dialogue titled 'Building the RMG sector in adherence with the United Nations Guideline Principles (UNGPs)' was also attended by representatives of worker unions, relevant ministries of the government and economists.
Mohammad Hatem, 1st vice president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturer and Exporters Association (BKMEA) said, "The buyers who speak about ethical business, we saw their stance during the Covid pandemic, when they cancelled and stayed orders and delayed payments."
Recalling an agreement with the foreign stakeholders following the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, he said, "The third pillar of that deal was the issue of fair price. But no one talks about that."
"Fair product price is necessary to pay fair wages to the workers," he stressed.
In 2020, when the Covid pandemic hit the world, the western buyers started to indiscriminately cancel shipments.
According to statistics of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Exporters Association (BGMEA), a total of $3.18 billion worth of orders were put on hold. Payments were also delayed for three to six months or more in some cases. The stayed orders were later reinstated, the BGMEA added.
CPD Director, Research, Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem presented the subject matter of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the status of the country's ready-made garment sector's progress in this regard.
It was revealed that Bangladesh is trailing behind with regard to the UNGP standard.
Md Mujibul Haque Chunnu, chairman of the Standing Committee on Ministry of Labour and Employment, said, "International Labour Organisation (ILO) and others talk about the quality of labour but we do not exactly know what is the standard. Even after the improvement of labour quality in the past few years there are questions and the questions will keep coming."
Secretary to the labour ministry Ehsan E Elahi said the government is proceeding with the roadmap to update labour law and rules as per the ILO guidelines. Progress has also been made on the four points raised by the European Union to improve labour standards to qualify for continuation of the GSP facilities, he claimed, stressing that the issues need to be settled with the EU if Bangladesh is to get zero-duty access to Europe beyond 2024.
Initiative has been taken to incorporate unemployment insurance, required by the EU, into the National Social Security Scheme, the labour secretary informed the dialogue.
On 4 October, the cabinet approved a proposal for ratification of extension of ILO protocol 19 on forced or compulsory labour, and the work on complying with the ILO convention 138 on minimum wage has been in the final stage.
"We have already taken opinion from 17/18 ministries and will send it to the cabinet shortly," Ehsan E Elahi said, elaborating on the developments on labour law reforms to meet ILO and EU standards.
Dr Moazzem and Abdul Mahidud Khan, visiting research fellow of CPD, presented a report which was based on an enterprise-level survey, conducted among 606 workers of 603 enterprise and 200 factories including 54% small; 40% medium and 6.7% large scale facilities from the four major clusters covering Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj & Chattogram
Analysis was carried out under four indicators such as, practice of human and labour rights, certification of HR-related practices, monitoring and inspection of HR issues, addressing workers' complaints and grievance mechanisms.
The report said that Bangladesh's overall progress in terms of UNGPs is still below the elementary level, mainly in 'negligible' state. Among the eight sub-indices, neither of them reached the matured state. Marginal progress is observed in case of 'governance and embedding' where only 3% of factories are found at the state of 'established' category.
The report further reveals that large factories tend to perform better in human rights than medium-sized and medium-sized factories perform better than small ones. On the other hand, factories from Dhaka and Gazipur district have better performance in most human rights aspects than factories from Chattogram and Narayanganj.
In the CPD survey 76% factories said they have a statement saying they will respect human rights. Above 15% of the non-member and BKMEA factories have no idea on human rights statements. Above 10% of factories have no public statement on human rights in Dhaka, Narayanganj and Chattogram.
The survey also found that most priority issues for the majority of factories include child labour, sexual harassment, workplace harassment, decent wage, workplace safety and juvenile workers related issues.
Some issues get less priority in a considerable share of factories, including lay off, retrenchment, and collective bargaining.
Babul Akhter, a labour leader said, "Owners are not yet ready to deal with trade unions. They say in public that unions are not bad but they feel differently. They are in fact afraid of trade unions."
Replying to Akhter's comment Mohammad Hatem said, "There is no objection about a responsible trade union. If, people who have sabotaged the sector in the past, are playing a role behind the formations of unions, then there will be objections."
Faruque Hassan, president of BGMEA said, "Europe and America are now focusing on neighbouring countries to reduce lead time in clothing purchases. This has become a challenge for us."
Fahmida Khatun, executive of CPD, chaired the dialogue, which was moderated by its distinguished fellow, professor Mustafizur Rahman.
Request to not bring up Rana Plaza issue:
Vidiya Amrit Khan, deputy managing director of Desh Garments and director of BGMEA, requested to not bring up the issue of Rana Plaza and focus on the developments achieved after the 2013 tragedy.
Other RMG sector leaders also backed his comment.
Replying to the issue, Professor Mustafizur Rahman said, "This is your opinion, but others may have a different opinion. The 1,200 workers, who died, their families and others may have had different views."
He also said, "The garment industry is the largest sector in the country. We want them to show the way."
However, in response, Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, a worker specialist of ILO South Asia, said that the garment sector is branding Bangladesh. It's only natural that any irregularity in this sector becomes the topic of discussion.
"The Rana Plaza reference will surface no more when we'll see the sector undergoing sustainable development and its continuity being maintained," he said.
Workers do not get justice in court:
Mujibul Haque Chunnu said that workers usually do not get justice in the court.
He said that the labour court was supposed to complete each trial within 90 days. Once a verdict is given in this court, it goes to the appellate tribunal. After losing there, the owner files writ with the High Court.
"Once the appellate court passes it's judgement, the cases are not supposed to be taken to the High Court," he said.