05/13/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

"Enough is Enough": Labor Rights Advocates Call for Change Over Mounting Death Toll in Bangladesh

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As bodies of workers continued to be pulled from the wreckage of the collapsed Rana Plaza factory complex outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, and news was breaking of at least seven deaths in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh on May 9, labor rights advocates meeting in Bangkok called for changes in the system that has led to disasters that have killed more than 1,300 workers in the past eight months. As I reported from Bangkok for The Pump Handle, the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV), issued a statement sharply critical of current policies, particularly corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that the group says have contributed to the current crisis:

"'Events of the last eight months have clearly demonstrated a complete failure of the CSR [corporate social responsibility] and hollowness of the 'self-regulatory' standards and industry audits that manufactures and brands have been adopting,' said ANROEV in a statement issued as the group gathered for its 13th annual meeting. 'ANROEV members also express their deep outrage at the colossal loss of life, which is now unprecedented by any scale. Fire and structural safety of the buildings is the basic right that workers in Asia rightfully deserve,' said ANROEV in its statement. 'Enough is enough. Stop these murders at workplaces in Asia.'

A network of NGOs based in more than 14 Asian countries that advocate for occupational health, safety, and labor rights, ANROEV was initially formed following fatal Kader and Zhili toy factory fires in Thailand and China in the early 1990s. This year's meeting is being held on the twentieth anniversary of the fire that killed 188 workers at the Kader factory in northern Thailand that was considered the worst factory fire until last year's fires at factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan. "Not much has changed in the past 20 years," said Sanjiv Pandita, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Resource Monitor Centre (AMRC). We shouldn't have to be talking about these kinds of disasters anymore, he said.

"We need to recover from the mentality of only trying to fix things after an accident then waiting for another accident before demanding additional change," said Repon Chowdhury, executive director of the Bangladesh Occupational, Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE), discussing the Rana Plaza disaster. "We are hoping this disaster being treated as a national disaster will change the scenario in Bangladesh," said Chowdhury. "If this doesn't change things, nothing will," he said.

In its statement, ANROEV harshly criticized the reliance on voluntary policies that it says "has led to the weakening of the state regulatory mechanisms, which otherwise could have allowed inspections of these facilities by local authorities and thus disasters could have been prevented." The recent and ongoing disasters, said ANROEV, have "shown the failure of both for-profit and nonprofit social auditing, that seems to be detached from the realities at ground." ANROEV calls for the following changes:

  1. Companies should be obliged to comply with national and international health and safety measures, whichever is a higher standard, in a serious manner through which should be monitored locally by strengthening the local independent inspections.
  2. Union and workers' participation at all levels in health and safety policies and decisions has to be recognized as indispensable component in ensuring safe and healthy workplaces. Concrete steps should be taken to ensure freedom of association.
  3. Active formation and recognition of victims' organizations as legitimate representatives of the injured and dead workers

"We need organizations at the ground level, at the home base," said Chowdhury, "not all the window dressing," that has come with current CSR policies in practice. And he cautioned, "Having the buyers close up leave and move elsewhere is not a solution."

"We need to replace the current system with one where companies have to pay into support for locally based inspections," said Pandita. He and other ANROEV members described what they call a failed system of auditing and inspection. Many at the meeting spoke of inspectors "colluding with employers," and those managing factories that produce for multinational brands. One NGO representative recounted how a local factory manager had asked about how he should pay the individual conducting a third-party audit.

Current CSR policies, ANROEV said in its statement, have effectively privatized what should be the government function of ensuring strong labor laws and enforcement of occupational safety and health policies and building codes. Coupled with current employment practices that rely heavily on temporary workers rather than full-time employees and on migrant labor, the result is a work environment that has kept these workplaces "virtually union-free." ANROEV also called for criminal prosecution of those responsible for conditions at the Rana Plaza complex.

The lack of local laws is not necessarily a problem, said Pandita. "The problem is political will to implement the laws." That the Rana Plaza factories were allowed to operate despite obvious structural hazards is ample evidence of a failure of enforcement. Meanwhile, adding to the problems for the workers and families involved, he said, is the fact that so many workers in such Bangladeshi factories "are not registered with social security," which compounds problems they will have in securing any compensation.

As horrific as the death toll from the current spate of south Asian industrial disasters is, "even more workers are dying of occupational diseases," said Pandita. "But they die slowly," he said.