Garment workers shout as they call on other workers to join them during a protest in Dhaka September 23, 2013.
Garment workers shout as they call on other workers to join them during a protest in Dhaka September 23, 2013.

NEW DELHI - The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Bangladesh government have launched a program to improve working standards for the country’s nearly 4 million garment workers.   The initiative comes six months after the worst disaster in the country’s garment industry killed more than 1,100 people and put the spotlight on hazardous working conditions in the thriving sector.

The deputy director general for field operations of the International Labor Organization, Gilbert Huongbo, said a key focus of the new initiative will be effective implementation of a new labor law that allows workers to unionize.

The program, which will roll out over three and a half years, was launched in Dhaka on Tuesday.
Huongbo told VOA labor unions can play a significant role in securing better standards for Bangladesh’s garment workers.  “The new labor law provides much better protection for the workers to unionize. The freedom of association is more effective. In the past the set up was not very conducive. It is an improvement in terms of collective bargaining,” he said. 

Up until now,  workers had to get permission from factory owners to form unions, which were discouraged.  And there have been many complaints of harassment by labor leaders.   

The program will also focus on better workplace safety. This will involve assessment of thousands of factories for fire and structural safety. Unsafe factories will be relocated. But the ILO is stressing the need for credible inspections.

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Two massive accidents in the past year have put Bangladesh under pressure to radically improve work conditions in its garment factories, which churn out clothes for leading global brands. Last November a fire swept through a garment factory killing 110 workers.  More than 1,100 were crushed to death when an eight story building collapsed this past April. There have been several smaller accidents in recent years.

The new program also includes rehabilitation and skills training for those injured in disasters.   
Gilbert Huongbo of the ILO said if what they plan is implemented, things will improve in the garment sector. But he stresses the need for caution. “But as I said the devil is in the detail. One has to keep the momentum, one has to keep the pressure on all parties. At the end of the day, the international community can only help. The real thing has to come from the government, from the local employers, and from the trade unions, the people of Bangladesh,” he stated. 

The move to improve working conditions in Bangladesh is being backed by activist groups like Europe-based Clean Clothes Campaign.  On Monday, the group launched a campaign to “Pay a living wage” to garment workers in Bangladesh and other Asian countries.

Bangladesh’s minimum wage is the lowest in Asia - $38 a month.  

Emma Harbour at Clean Clothes Campaign in the Netherlands says better union representation in garment factories will help workers bargain for a better wage. She said they are also trying to raise awareness among Western consumers.
“We are calling on consumers here in Europe to make it known to brands and their governments that low wages is not acceptable. One of the excuses we often hear from brands is that consumers don’t want to pay more," she said. "But the reality is that to pay a decent living wage in Bangladesh the difference in a 20 Euro T-shirt would be less than one euro.”
The Bangladesh government is expected to announce a hike in the minimum wage next month. Industry analysts in Dhaka say the Bangladesh government is aware that it needs to revamp its garment sector to avoid business moving away. The garment sector is the country’s biggest industry earning more than $ 20 billion a year.