Improving the lives of RMG workers
The last few weeks have seen discussion continuing on the actual pitiable living conditions faced by RMG workers and the need to find proper answers to their unfortunate situation. Controversy continues to stalk our RMG sector despite positive efforts undertaken by relevant authorities.
The debate is important because it is the source of livelihood not only for more than 3.6 million workers in Bangladesh, but is also the largest employer of our women workforce in any formal sector of our economy.
A survey carried out by the CPD has revealed that the living conditions of most of the workers left a lot to be desired.
Another survey carried out by Bangladesh Garment Sramik Sanghati (BGSS) exposed that many of the workers have to take loans to survive, and most have to work an average of 60 extra hours a month in addition to routine daily duty.
It may be recalled that the Ministry of Labour and Employment recently formed a minimum wage board and examined the different facets related to this sector.
At that time, the minimum wage was a total of Tk5,300 per month. It used to be Tk3,000 in 2010, Tk1,662.50 in 2006, Tk940 in 1994, and Tk627 in 1985. After discussion with the BGMEA, the salary structure has been revised once again.
Certain sections of the civil society and some RMG worker associations say this increase in financial facilities has not been enough. They have started lobbying once again with the buyers from abroad and also some civil society representatives from developed countries.
The president of the Sammillita Garment Sramik Federation has urged the government to slightly raise the basic wage from the announced Tk4,100 per month as other benefits such as bonuses and compensation are determined based on the worker’s basic pay.
This equation has also included the debate over trade union rights enjoyed by workers in the RMG sector.
The absence of this element has been pointed out to our relevant authorities by several countries during their discussion with Bangladeshi representatives over the question of providing better financial facilities to Bangladeshi manufacturers from the RMG sector when they export their products.
A survey carried out in this regard by the CPD has indicated that the workers’ organizations continue to remain either weak or non-functional in different factories. Most of the workers according to this survey also appear to be unaware of their rights.
It may be mentioned that lack of necessary compliance in different areas have led to Accord and Alliance severing their ties with 195 factories. That has cast a shadow on this sector.
Criticism with regards to the suitable formation of trade union facilities has paid dividends, of course.
The media reported that the cabinet secretary has announced that, under the draft Bangladesh Labour Act (Amendment) Bill 2018, the percentage of worker’s participation required for forming trade unions in factories is being reduced to 20% from the existing 30%.
Under this proposed law, no child will also be allowed to work in factories.
Section 47 of this draft amendment also mentions that any female worker who gives birth to a baby will be allowed an eight-week period of leave within three days of informing the relevant authorities.
If the factory authorities do not allow her to go on leave, they will be fined Tk25,000.
Any worker who reports for duty during a festival will be given one day of leave and wages for two days after the festival. In the case of natural death, the family of the worker concerned will get Tk2 lakh as compensation, up from Tk1 lakh in the previous law.
One can see how both the government and RMG company owners are being pro-active and are trying to facilitate remedial action through constructive engagement. Manufacturers from the RMG sector underlined the need for better prices for their products.
It was pointed out that remediating the factories consistent with the recommendations made by Accord and Alliance had cost them nearly $3 billion. Attention was also drawn to the fact that implementing the higher financial rates of payment agreed to with the government will add to their expenditure and in some factories wipe out any possibility of any profit.
One feels that the current asymmetry in pricing needs to be addressed -- sooner the better. If this is done carefully then additional funds will be available for facilitating better wages for the RMG workers. The middle men and purchasers could set aside 1% of their earnings to create a special fund for looking after the socio-economic, education, training, and health needs of workers.
The use of this fund could be monitored through a registered board constituted by representatives from the buyers, the middle men, the owners, and the workers in factories which have registered trade unions. That could be done through transparency and accountability.
One has to remember that it always takes two to tango in any dynamic.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]