A new agreement signed by over 30 western companies is supposed to improve the working conditions for textile workers in Bangladesh's factories. But, expecting it to solve the country's labor problems is too simplistic.
The tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh in April of this year, that left over 1,100 people dead and 2,400 injured, has been one of the most dramatic in a series of incidents that have highlighted the poor working conditions in countries with low production costs.
As a reaction, several large companies, including European giants like H&M, Kik and Metro, have responded and are starting to sign an agreement to ensure safer working conditions specifically in Bangladesh's factories. The agreement is meant to be legally binding, thus enabling violations to be brought to court.
But, will the agreement actually bring about the much awaited improvement for seamstresses and other workers who work in unsafe buildings across Bangladesh and live on a little more than a euro per day? Opinion is divided.
Diverse international obligations
The search for survivors lasted days in the rubble of the Bangladesh textile factory that collapsed near Dhaka
The agreement, which was crafted by Swiss-based UNI and IndustriALL Global Union, is not the first attempt to legalize the textile industry in developing countries. The United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (ICESCR) which has been ratified by 160 states - including Bangladesh - has been in effect since 1976. It guarantees, among other things, that wages must suffice for a "decent standard of living" for the worker and their family and that the worker shall have "safe and healthy working conditions." But, the convention's effect in Bangladesh has been negligible so far.
"The international law obligations of states are considerable," said Michael Krennerich, the chairman of the Nürnberg Menschenrechtszentrum, a human rights organization from Nuremberg in Germany. But, he says, to bring about a real change though the international obligations need to be made into national laws, which does not often happen. Without this implementation into national law, the international obligations are nothing but "a rather blunt sword" according to Krennerich.
Other international law commitments also include the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations. The 102nd session of the ILO is currently underway in Geneva. One of the primary tasks of the ILO is to advise states on the implementation of international agreements into national law by setting up pension schemes, for example.
Naming and shaming
If a country signs up to a convention of the ILO - for instance the convention prohibiting forced and child labour - they have to regularly report back on their progress. In case of complaints, the government is forced to give a formal answer.
Veronika Wodsak, from the Social Security department at the ILO, told DW that the organization is then forced to act if negligent, systematic and persistent violations come to light. "Then a commission can be set up which would closely examine the case and submit a case study.”
This case study is public, therefore countries and companies have it in their interest to not be a part of it. The ILO's ability to 'name and shame' is the only penalty they can impose, although the organization can withdraw its support for a government.
There are also many voluntary commitments for companies currently in place, says Michael Krennerich. The implementation is the decisive factor. At issue is whether the compliance is audited externally or internally and if the workers can complain when their rights are violated. He points out though that these voluntary commitments do not bind the company in any way legally.
The Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that focuses on the protection of workers' rights, says the new agreement being signed by western companies in Bangladesh is a step in the right direction. Not least because now, for the first time, violations of building and fire safety regulations by companies can be brought to court.
The ILO too has welcomed the agreement in an official statement, but stressed that politicians in Bangladesh also need to rectify a number of domestic labor laws at the same time. At the moment for instance, factory workers in Bangladesh struggle to organize themselves into unions. The union participation rate in a factory must be relatively high - about 30 percent - before it can be recognized.
Critics complain that the new agreement does not address this issue at all. They also say it overlooks the problem of low wages for the workers.
As part of the new agreement an independent inspector is required to oversee the implementation of regulations in the factories, a move which prompted a lot of criticism.
Critics believe that the Bangladesh government is trying to shirk responsibility, in a country where politics and economy are closely linked. Many of the factories' owners, who produce clothing for western companies, are also parliamentarians.