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Protecting human rights at the workplace: Observations for the RMG industry
Evidence shows that the majority of the factories have far more work to do for actively creating a conducive work environment that safeguards the rights of their workers and other staff
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The ready-made garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh has flourished over the years, transforming the country to a successful export-oriented economy.
Over 4 million people are employed in this sector with more than 80% of the workforce being women.
Workers’ welfare has long been an issue in this sector, which began to improve a few years ago, particularly after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 causing a worldwide stir that resulted in pressure from all corners concerned.
Nevertheless, available evidence shows that the majority of the factories have yet to do far more work to actively create a conducive work environment that safeguards the rights of their workers and other staff.
As noted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), it is instrumental for top brands in strengthening human rights due diligence so as to prevent and address business-related human rights harms through identification, assessment, mitigation, monitoring and evaluation.
In 2008, the United Nations endorsed the “Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework” that addresses the human rights responsibilities of businesses.
The framework states that business enterprises have the responsibility to respect human rights irrespective of their geographic locations and size, which among others means that companies must know their actual or potential impacts, prevent and mitigate abuses, and address the adverse impacts they are involved with.
To reinforce the framework, on March 10 last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the need for human rights due diligence to include the entire supply chain of businesses.
Without adequate sensitisation of the top management and decision makers, human rights will continue to be ignored in most businesses as usual.
In Bangladesh many factories work with renowned European brands that are committed to comply with the mentioned legislations and so fall into the jurisdiction of the EU resolution.
In the RMG sector in Bangladesh, human rights encompass various aspects, including but not limited to, annual leaves, maternity benefits, non-discriminatory practices, eradication of forced or child labour, gender balance at all layers, occupational safety and health, social governance and grievance mechanism.
Till now, only a handful of factories in Bangladesh have grown to become mindful about safeguarding human rights in their governance structure and practices to align with their client brands’ requirements.
Evidently, without adequate sensitisation of the top management and decision makers, human rights will continue to be ignored in most businesses as usual. A defined management process equipped with concrete policies and procedures has to be put into place to ensure practice of human rights at all levels in all the RMG establishments.
It’s also evident that RMG businesses in Bangladesh need assistance in building institutional framework and capacity to effectively implement human rights at workplaces.
It can be done through raising awareness and providing support in designing effective policies and procedures for risk assessment, mitigation, monitoring and evaluation to develop and sustain an organisational culture of practising human rights.
Currently, a number of development organisations including Brac are active in the RMG industry, supporting the companies to sustainably build a conducive work environment for all the workforce engaged.
One such instance is Brac's support to more than 400 factories on safety management systems to ensure a safe working environment for all.
Through its social compliance programme, the organisation is providing support to the industry actors in policy formulation, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and soft skills training on management processes focused on safeguarding workers and other staff from workplace harassment and gender-based violence.
While the country moves towards obtaining middle income status, a radical transformation to the industry is needed to improve the lives of its most vulnerable workforce.
At present, brands are increasingly focusing on ensuring human rights practices in the garment factories, while making those factories accountable that are found negligent in human rights issues.
It is therefore high time that the RMG industry in Bangladesh worked aggressively towards implementing those principles and framework across its businesses, factories and other workplaces by introducing solid management processes with functional human rights frameworks.
SK Jenefa Jabbar has 23 years of experience in working in the RMG industry with renowned organizations such as JCPenny, BGMEA, TESCO, and Gap Inc, to name a few. She leads Brac's overall RMG portfolio and the social compliance team’s efforts in building the capacity of women workers in RMG factories.
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