Union is the way, not outside pressure: Abed

BRAC founder Fazle Hasan Abed says garment workers should be allowed to organise union to ensure basic pay and safety standards but he strongly discourages outside pressure on the nearly $20 billion industry.

News Deskbdnews24.com
Published : 30 April 2013, 04:28 AM
Updated : 30 April 2013, 10:48 AM
In an op-ed column -- Bangladesh Needs Strong Unions, Not Outside Pressure – that appeared in the New York Times on Monday, he warns against the consumers in the West stopping purchasing ‘Made in Bangladesh’ apparels following Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster in Savar.
Abed terms the Savar tragedy “one of the saddest chapters since we won our independence in 1971, precisely because the tragedy could easily have been prevented” even though Bangladesh suffers disasters quite frequently.
Dwelling upon the sentiment in the West following the latest deaths, he says: “I appreciate the unease a Westerner might feel knowing that the clothes on his or her back were stitched together by people working long hours in dangerous conditions.
“It is natural that people in richer countries are now asking how they can put pressure on Bangladesh and its manufacturers to improve the country’s dismal safety record.”
He says “boycotting brands that do business in Bangladesh might only further impoverish those who most need to put food on their tables, since the foreign brands would simply take their manufacturing contracts to other countries”.
The BRAC Chairman points out that jobs in the garment industry have made social change possible in the country and the sector employs about three million women. Economic opportunities in the garment factories have allowed poor families to set long-term goals, “like educating their sons and daughters, saving and taking microloans to start new businesses, and building and maintaining more sanitary living spaces”.
He warns that Bangladesh’s remarkable gains in microfinance, living standards, cuts in maternal and early childhood mortality, gender gap abolition in primary and secondary school enrolment “will mean little if we allow tragedies like the one at Savar to continue”.
“The law must work for everyone, rich and poor, landless laborer and factory owner alike. We must not allow those who benefit from the exploitation of the vulnerable to continue to treat life so cheaply.”
The BRAC chief says Bangladesh should look within for solutions. “My country will require new political will to hold accountable those who willingly put human lives at such grave risk. It will also require the support of factory owners; civil society organizations, including my own; and the private sector, including Western buyers.”
He argues “organized power” of workers “is the only thing that can stand up to the otherwise unaccountable nexus of business owners and politicians, who are often one and the same”.
He suggests that Western buyers of Bangladeshi apparel finance better safety standards instead of putting pressure on factory owners to cut price.
“The point needs to be made in the marketplace overseas that safety improvements are not so expensive that they can be used as an excuse for raising prices to the consumer.
“And consumers who are shocked by the working conditions need to realize that a playing field where the price tag is the only standard for a purchase is not a level one when workers’ lives are at stake.”
Abed advocates prosecuting the owners “for criminal negligence” and says they cannot be trusted anymore to voluntarily do what is required.
“In a country with 100,000 factories in and near the capital… an inspection force numbering 18 people only invites unconscionable lapses on the part of unscrupulous employers. The inspection force must be increased drastically, and it must vigorously enforce safety standards.
“The government, finally, must stop neglecting worker safety issues,” which the BRAC founder believes will be extremely difficult to accomplish as long as there is an unholy web of employers and politicians colluding to avoid responsibility for criminal negligence.
He concludes by saying that the civil society is ready to work with the authorities to put things in place.
Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher