When large parts of the world were celebrating their year-end holidays, the Bangladesh garment manufacturers went on offensive against their workers. Over 1,600 lost their jobs and production at numerous facilities was halted as a repressive lock-out measure while several union leaders and worker activists were detained by police or driven into hiding. This ended strike action for a substantial rise to the country’s sub-standard 68 US Dollar monthly minimum wage.
At European sustainability conferences the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association BGMEA has liked to present itself as a modern employers’ association, respecting workers’ rights, including freedom of association. The picture has now been shattered by mass dismissals and police repression taking the place of constructive negotiations and social dialogue.
This has not necessarily been a surprise. We should not cheat ourselves by believing that fundamental changes in working life attitudes could appear over night in problematic producer countries. Respect for human rights at work grows slowly, at its best. For many years to come we will need outside involvement and pressure to develop and secure decent labour conditions. Trade regulations and socially responsible buyer policies remain the main tools for this.
Building and fire safety programmes are not enough
The building and fire safety programmes that were imposed on the industry after the Rana Plaza disaster have already improved numerous factory workplaces. This is an important achievement by both the European-dominated Accord and the US-based Alliance. Regrettably, a common project could not be reached.
Although workers’ and trade union rights are part of their agendas – particularly so within the Accord – their core tasks do not cover overall labour conditions. This is the role of other projects such as the Bangladesh Sustainability Compact which brings together the European Union, the United States ( we will see then what happens with Donald Trump in the lead in Washington DC ) , Canada, the ILO and Bangladesh itself. It is complemented by the Decent Work in Bangladesh and the Better Work Bangladesh programmes, as well as by many other initiatives and activities.
Between 2013 and 2015, the Bangladesh Government put in place improved legislation on guarantee freedom of association, supported by the International Labour Organisation ILO. There are also national tripartite consultation mechanisms. Still, it would be be unrealistic to think that labour problems are solved when laws and regulations are updated and improved. There must also be a capacity and political will to apply the new principles. While resources could be built up reasonably fast, changes to social cultures and attitudes take much longer.
Buyers share the responsibility to act
International buyer brands and retailers sourcing or producing in Bangladesh cannot just close their eyes for what is happening now. The wage raise numbers can and should of course be discussed locally, but it is clear that the official minimum wage is seriously below what is acceptable for living costs. While it may not be the role of buyer corporations to involve themselves directly in wage negotiations, they do have a responsibility to intervene if freedom of association and the effective right to collective bargaining are violated. Labour conflicts should be settled in negotiations, not by police intervention and repression.
All serious social sustainability codes and standards require suppliers to pay wages that cover basic living costs and provide for some discretionary expenses. Some call it a living wage, some don’t, but it is always there. This is the time, if ever, for buyers to activate this and to get involved in suitable ways.
Instead of deducting from the importance of sustainability, the rise of populism in buyer countries may add to it. There is a strong and forceful counter-reaction bringing people together in new ways. Leading brands and buyers should not lose sight of the consumer powers of these people whose consciousness is growing as they engage in a fight for human and democratic values. Supply chain condition will continue to be in the public eye however government policies may change. Businesses need to overcome the all too common emotional and ideological aversions against working with trade unions on supply chain issues and accept that social dialogue and cooperation builds a positive and even necessary engagement and stability.
Improved supply chain cooperation needed between business and trade unions
Also many global unions and non-governmental organisations could do some rethinking. Instead of attacking the sustainability schemes and initiatives they should be engaged to help bring about real and positive change. Without initiatives such as BSCI, SAI and its SA8000 Standard, WRAP, Fairtrade and others, control and remediation activities on the ground would be really thin. The social auditing industry which recently launched and important development effort through APSCA – the Association of Professional Social Compliance Auditors – will continue to play an essential role in making sustainable development possible.
On their own, unions and NGOs will not be able to generate real improvements, in an increasing unsympathetic world where hard business values and right-wing populism continue to gain ground also among decision-makers. This is the time for pragmatic and mutually rewarding supply chain alliances, however conflicting the interests may be on other arenas.