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MoU to boost health of Bangladesh garment workers

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 > 09:26:03
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www.just-style.com

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Telenor Health, an offshoot of mobile giant Telenor Group, aimed at using digital and mobile technology to boost the health and wellbeing of the country's garment workers.

Through the collaboration, existing Telenor Health services, which are already used in Bangladesh, will be offered to RMG workers in a number of cities across the country.

With 214m mobile subscriptions and mobile operations in 13 markets, Telenor Group works to empower societies by providing digital communication. Its Telenor Health vehicle aims to develop a "digital front door to health", using mobile technology to make high quality health information, advice, and services accessible for everyone.

The organisation will also work with the BGMEA to identify and develop sustainable financing models for health and wellness services for RMG workers, and explore opportunities for "innovative and affordable" solutions and services.

"Working with Telenor Health will be a new and innovative approach for the Association to facilitate sustainability in the apparel industry, which accounts for 81% of total export earnings for Bangladesh," explains Siddiqur Rahman, BGMEA president. "One of the ways this can be achieved is by ensuring that the large number of workers contributing to this growth are given access to quality healthcare. This collaboration will hopefully allow us to be one step closer to branding our sector as one of the safest industries in the world."

The MoU was signed at the Dhaka Apparel Summit on Saturday (25 February). The event made headlines last week when a cohort of leading apparel companies, including Spanish clothing giant Inditex, H&M, C&A, Next and Tchibo, pulled out in response to a crackdown on Bangladesh labour activists by the Bangladesh government and factory owners over the last two months. According to the industry's trade body, the unrest has cost the country's garment industry around US$100m.

Inditex and H&M among those boycotting Dhaka garmet summit

Since 21 December, around 34 labour leaders and garment workers have been arrested and detained based on a series of what the International Labor Rights Forum calls "falsified complaints" filed by factory owners and the Government. These retaliatory actions followed non-violent protests over the country's low minimum wage.

But late last week, the Bangladesh government responded to the pressure with State Minister for Labour and Employment, Mujibul Haque Chunnu, saying the government will help the detainees get bail.

Bangladesh government steps in over labour crackdow

On Thursday (23 February), a tripartite agreement was reached between IndustriAll Bangladesh Council (IBC), the Ministry of Labour, and the BGMEA, providing the release of the arrested trade unionists and garment workers. According to the agreement, those remaining will also be freed and cases against them disposed of.

According to IndustriAll global union, the majority of the 35 Bangladeshi unionists and garment workers arrested since December last year have been released, and the remaining should be released shortly.

IndustriAll's general secretary Valter Sanches welcomed the decision, which the union says sets a precedent in recognising the IBC as a formal counterpart in negotiations.

"We have seen an incredible show of global solidarity and this is an important victory for garment workers in Bangladesh, sending a strong message to the country's industry to enter into a constructive dialogue with the trade unions."

But he cautions, the issue that sparked the union crackdown still remains. "We will continue to support the fight for higher wages and will closely monitor the situation until all charges are dropped."

Similarly, labour group the Clean Clothes Campaign, believes the agreement is an "important first step" but says it still falls short of fully resolving the crisis. According to the group, the document has "significant weaknesses", and does not include a commitment that criminal charges will be dropped. It calls for reinstatement offers for fired workers, but not for back pay, and it fails to mention a timeline for any of the actions to be implemented, the group adds.

"We welcome the announced re-opening of all registered union offices, and the planned release of all remaining workers under arrest (at the time of this release there labour leaders were still in jail)," says Mirjam van Heugten, Clean Clothes Campaign. "The document does not, however, constitute a basis for us as international labour rights organisations to conclude that the crisis in Bangladesh has been resolved, as there remain major issues outstanding. Without a guarantee from the relevant authorities that all charges are actually being dropped, the problems with freedom of association in Bangladesh cannot be considered resolved."

Meanwhile Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, adds he hopes an agreed plan of action with further clarification and assurances will be provided shortly, while Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum says they will be "monitoring the situation closely".

As a result of what it calls a "groundbreaking agreement" between the government of Bangladesh, BGMEA and IBC, Swedish fashion giant H&M decided to join and monitor the Bangladesh Apparel Summit as an observer.

A spokesperson told just-style: "H&M does not change the requirements or demands that have already been put on the six manufacturers which filed cases against workers. Freedom of association is a non-negotiable human right, a key component of H&M's Sustainability Commitment, and a fundamental requirement on all our business partners.

"We are closely monitoring the implementation of the latest agreement to ensure its terms are fulfilled together with IndustriAll and relevant stakeholders."

Global retailer C&A also decided to attend, following the signing of the tripartite agreement.

"We believe that the Summit is important for Bangladesh apparel industry," the company told just-style. "Furthermore, the willingness to create these agreements demonstrates that the collaboration between brands, the BGMEA, unions, and government can result in impactful outcomes for the industry. It also is an important and positive signal that all parties are willing to discuss these issues with local and international unions, and to further ensure that social and labour rights are upheld."

Meanwhile, Tchibo told just-style it did not attend the Summit, while Inditex and Next did not respond at the time of going to press.


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