US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas has commended the work done in the last decade to improve workers' rights and ensure safe factories for all while stressing that the country needs to do more in this regard.
"As Bangladesh moves to graduate from LDC status, more will be expected of it," he said at a roundtable on the tenth anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, which left more than 1,100 workers dead and thousands more injured.
Solidarity Center-Bangladesh office, IndustriAll Bangladesh Council, and USAID jointly organised the seminar on "Workers' Health and Safety and Trade Union Rights: Where Are We Now?" at The Daily Star Centre in Dhaka on Wednesday.
Peter Haas said, "Rana Plaza drew the world's attention to unsafe conditions for Bangladesh's factory workers and raised important questions around safety and transparency in the global garment industry. Workers stood in solidarity and said, 'enough is enough', and the world agreed that such an accident should never happen again."
"And I'm pleased to say that, because of the tireless efforts of many in this room, we have seen positive changes, particularly in the RMG export sector," he added.
Lauding stakeholders for their joint effort to make garment factories safer, the US diplomat said the factories are safer due to agreements among unions, global brands, and employers who worked together under the former Accord and Alliance.
He praised the government for building a stronger body of labour laws and policies in the last decade.
"Bangladesh has digitised the trade union registration process, which should help workers form unions and complete their registrations in a timely fashion. They have also digitised the labour inspection system to improve data accessibility and transparency," he said, adding, "This is tremendous progress. But it is nowhere near enough."
Calling for workers' safety and labour rights to be an ingrained part of Bangladesh's ethos, Peter Haas suggested a couple of areas where Bangladesh might focus going forward.
Mentioning the massive fire at the Bangabazar clothing market in Dhaka last week, he asked to highlight the need for greater progress in industrial safety beyond the export-oriented RMG sector.
"This (Bangabazar) was not an isolated incident. We are all aware of the recent explosion at the Seema Oxygen Plant, the fire at a container depot in Chattogram, and the Hashem food factory fire. These examples illustrate the need for stronger inspections and enforcement of labour laws across all industries and sectors," he added.
In addition, the ambassador called for further strengthening the right of workers to form and join independent trade unions and to collectively bargain for better working conditions.
"The rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are enabling rights for the realisation of all other labour rights," he said, noting that the decrease in work-related accidents in the industrialised world is largely due to the courageous efforts of organised labour.
"Around the world, unscrupulous employers will inevitably cut corners on safety, resulting in preventable worker injuries and deaths. We know that when workers can form or join independent unions, they can defend their rights and collectively advance their interests," he added.
Rashadul Alam Raju, executive member of the IndustriAll Bangladesh Council, presented a keynote paper at the seminar.
He recommended creating a safe workplace by conducting regular safety inspections and enforcing the labour law. Safety committees with true worker representation should be activated and empowered to resolve workplace hazards.
He said that legitimate, independent trade unions should be registered without delay, and employers should respect fundamental labour rights, including the right to freely associate and collectively bargain.
Unfair labour practices should be swiftly investigated, and those responsible should be brought to justice.
Brands and buyers have an obligation to pay fair prices for their orders and to support their supplier factories in creating safe workplaces, where the health and wellbeing of workers are prioritised and workers are able to exercise their right to freedom of association without fear of reprisal.
They should sign the International Accord and promote effective enforcement of that agreement. In turn, trade unions should organise and unite to support and, if needed, hold all parties accountable for upholding their commitments, he added.
Trade union leaders were present at the seminar.