Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

Rags to Rights: Reforming Bangladesh’s Garment Sector

IDLO Director-General Irene Khan has spoken strongly in favor of incorporating gender concerns into any effort to reform Bangladesh’s weak labor safety culture. Speaking in Paris, at a panel discussion on Business and Human Rights hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Ms. Khan noted that in Bangladesh’s accident-prone garment industry, four out of five employees were women.

“Theirs are the bodies pulled out of the rubble of collapsed factories,” she said. “But in management as in the unions, there are very few women indeed. Unless you engage women, very little progress will be made.”

Ms. Khan’s remarks – addressed to ministers, business and labor leaders, and delegates of international organizations– stem from close observation. A native of Bangladesh, she has just spent a week in Dhaka, meeting representatives of industry and staff, government and human rights officials, and prominent NGOs. In Paris, she conveyed what she said was a consensus among Bangladeshi stakeholders: international clothes brands and retailers must not abandon the country, with any pullout or consumer boycott likely to endanger many more livelihoods than it might hypothetically protect.

In this, D-G Khan found common ground with fellow panelist Dipu Moni, foreign minister of Bangladesh. Minister Moni gave assurances that her government knew what it had to do and was doing it. Central to this effort, she said, was an amended Labor Law. Due to be passed within days, it toughens regulations and the factory inspection regime.

Ms. Khan responded that while new laws were welcome, the key issue was enforcement. “We’re always fighting the last war,” she argued – a reference to the tendency to boost fire safety after a fire, and revamp the building code after a building collapse. What was needed was legislation that was actually applied, legal empowerment of women, improved rights across the board (including to organize labor unions), and trust-building measures between employers and employees.

D-G Khan argued for inclusive social approaches, beyond the narrow scope of legislative band-aids. “Institution-building, Ms. Khan concluded, “is the supply side of justice. It’s high time we paid attention to the demand side. And that means multi-stakeholder engagement.”

Click here to read Irene Khan on the Rana Plaza disaster in the New York Times.