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2015-02_dc

20 D+C Vol.42.2015:2 You have been in Germany and Europe since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in April 2013. Are people here interested in what things are really like in Bangladesh? Actually, my experience is mixed. Sometimes, people really want information about what is going on in Bangladesh and want to know my perspective – and then I am very happy that I can share so much information. But sometimes I find European experts talking a lot about the Bangladesh garment industry in theory with only little practical experience in my country. That is frustrating because we know what we need; we know what needs to be done! If Euro­ peans or Americans try to do something that suits their own ideas even though they do not understand our reality, things will not work out. There have been so many meetings, with the same things being said over and over again. It makes me feel bad that it doesn’t lead to any new action plan. We should focus on what is good for the workers. But demands are increasingly made to require western companies to certify working and environmental conditions all along the gar- ment supply chain. Won’t that help? The supply chain is very complex and goes through many countries. I do not believe that more audits and more inspectors will solve our problems. Lots of auditing firms are already earning good money this way. And Bangladeshi companies are spending a lot of money to meet the requirements for various labels and certifications. Campaigns against individual western brands and retailers have not worked either. No, they have not. Many times I was asked to come to Europe or America to campaign against a specific Western company or brand, but I always refused to do so because it doesn’t help the workers. Often buyers shift their business to other suppliers when poor working conditions are exposed in a specific fac­ tory – and that means that workers lose their jobs. In other cases, western buyers used the bad publicity to push down prices even further in negotiations with a factory, and working conditions got even worse. Targeting individual retailers helps neither the indus­ try nor the workers. Many times, campaigns focus on discounters, but this is not fair. Consider who was sourcing clothing from Tazreen and Rana Plaza: low-price discounters were involved, but so were European high fashion brands. Sometimes it seems to me that these campaigns help multinational companies increase the level of exploitation. The problem is that no one addresses the concrete needs of the garment workers. So what needs to be done? Our labour law is actually quite good, but implemen­ tation is poor. So the real issue is to ensure effective implementation. We respect the local law and we respect the ILO conventions that the Government of Bangladesh has ratified. We don’t need other rules. If you really want to help Bangladeshi workers, respect the local legislation and insist that it be implemented. Why do we have to focus so much on international standards? Internationally, most people work five days a week. But in our country, six days are normal. This is what our law says. It is also what workers accept. You must respect our local laws. Our law defines overtime calculations, maternity benefits, childcare requirements and other things. These things must be implemented – but all too often, they are not. What about wages? Activists in western coun- tries want them to rise. Yes, wages are very low in Bangladesh, but calling for a living wage as defined by westerners will not help! Our wages are set through negotiation between the government, entrepreneurs and local labour unions, and this is how it should be. I myself was on the wage board that negotiated the wage increase in 2006. The wage, in itself, is not the big problem. The problem is that if the wage is increased today, tomor­ row the rent and other daily expenses will rise. The middlemen, the landlords, grocery shop men, fabric men will immediately raise prices if the minimum wage is increased. So wage increases as such do not benefit the workers much. Why does inflation erode wage increases so fast? Millions of workers have come to Dhaka and Chit­ tagong from the rural areas, and there is a terrible shortage of housing, sanitary facilities, health care, child care and other things. Those who get a little more money are willing to spend it, and when the wage rises, everybody is spending more. But the supply of things people need is not growing. Manu­ facturers have set up the factories, but no one is “Enforce the law” In the eyes of garment workers, Bangladesh’s textile industry is better than its international reputation. Nazma Akter, one of the country’s leading labour activists, assessed matters in an interview with Marianne Scholte. Bangladesh Dhaka

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