The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are a set of guidelines for states and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations. They were proposed by UN Special Representative on business and human rights John Ruggie and endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. In the same resolution, the UN Human Rights Council established the UN Working Group on business and human rights.
Even though the principles are not binding international law, they are the most authoritative international statement to date regarding the responsibilities of business with respect to human rights.
Now, as far as Bangladesh is concerned, the progress of the country’s readymade garment (RMG) industry has remained below the elementary level of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) even as none of the eight sub-indices of the UNGPs have reached the matured state yet.
This is as per a study titled State of the UNGPs in the RMG Sector of Bangladesh, carried out by the Centre for Policy Dialogue or CPD — established in 1993 with the vision of creating an inclusive society based on equity, justice, fairness and good governance. Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) seeks to be the leading institution for in-depth research and dialogue to promote inclusive policymaking in Bangladesh, and strengthen regional and global economic integration even if as a think tank committed to contributing towards participatory policy-making, CPD undertakes research and analyses, organises dialogues, brings out publications, enhances outreach of its activities and supports capacity building of relevant stakeholders. The Independent Review of Bangladesh’s Development (IRBD) is CPD’s flagship programme that produces analyses of the macroeconomic performance of the Bangladesh economy as well as analyses and recommendations for the national budget — the findings of which were revealed recently.
The survey-based study covered 603 enterprises in Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chittagong, and 606 workers of 200 factories to ensure national level representation.
The study analysed the level of maturity on eight key indicators such as policy commitment, governance and embedding, prioritisation of risks and identification of the salient human rights issues; stakeholder engagement; assessing human rights risks; integration and mitigation measures; tracking; and remedy and grievance mechanisms even as it revealed disparity in human and labour standards in terms of size, membership and location of factories while the level of overall improvement is more evident in case of the large- and medium-sized factories compared to the small ones. As per the findings of the study with majority of the factories (81.6 per cent). they have an official position on key human rights issues and public statements are disclosed in different forms – majority use posters (94.4 per cent) while there is a wide variation in public reporting of different issues and most reported issues included child labour, workplace safety, workplace harassment and living wage while the least addressed public disclosures are layoffs and retrenchments, and collective bargaining, it found.
It may be mentioned here that findings of the study and Bangladesh’s performance viz-a-viz the UNGPs guidelines is perhaps even more relevant in light of Bangladesh’s impending LDC graduation as a lot will harp on how the country performs in terms of labour rights and practices even as the in the EU, an export stronghold and a very important development partner, has been harping on four key issues, related to labour rights, unemployment insurance, ratification of various ILO protocols and conventions including ILO protocol 19, ILO convention 138, etc.
Meanwhile, Secretary to the Labour Ministry Ehsan E Elahi underlined the Government was proceeding with the roadmap to update labour law and rules as per the ILO guidelines even as he said progress has also been made on the four points raised by the European Union to improve labour standards to qualify for continuation of the GSP facilities, while also stressing that the issues need to be settled with the EU if Bangladesh is to get zero-duty access to Europe beyond 2024.
Initiative has been taken to incorporate unemployment insurance, required by the EU, into the National Social Security Scheme, the Labour Secretary informed even as he added that on 4 October, the cabinet approved a proposal for ratification of extension of ILO protocol 19 on forced or compulsory labour, and the work on complying with the ILO convention 138 on minimum wage has been in the final stage even if taking part in discussions that followed revelation of the CPD findings, Md Mujibul Haque Chunnu, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Ministry of Labour and Employment, stated, “International Labour Organisation (ILO) and others talk about the quality of labour but we do not exactly know what is the standard. Even after the improvement of labour quality in the past few years there are questions and the questions will keep coming,” while Ehsan E Elahi on his part added, “We have already taken opinion from 17/18 ministries and will send it to the cabinet shortly,” elaborating on the developments on labour law reforms to meet ILO and EU standards.
Coming back to the CPD’s study, it has reportedly been found that lack of corporatisation, faulty ways of public disclosure is weakening transparency in human and labour rights practices, and lack of sufficient, transparent and effective public monitoring to ensure workers’ rights were the major bottlenecks of institutionalisation of the UNGPs in the RMG factories even as the study suggested Bangladesh’s RMG sector, which has made a significant progress in strengthening workplace safety, to focus on human and labour rights issues in adherence to the UNGPs to better handle the post-graduation challenges.
Taking part in the discussion during the presentation of the CPD study findings, experts reportedly informed that these issues were new in the context of Bangladesh and said the exploratory study has identified areas of strengths and weaknesses in practices of UNGPs and thereby put forward a set of suggestions even as terming the sector one of the key sources of foreign exchange earnings, Dr Fahmida Khatun, Executive Director of CPD suggested that even though the sector has shown impressive growth during the post-Rana Plaza incident, there are still a number of social compliance issues that deserve adequate attention even if sharing the study findings, CPD Research Director Khondaker Golam Moazzem said the concept of UNGPs is not fully clear to the garment manufacturers although they understand human and labour rights issues.
“Despite divergent levels of human and labour rights practices at the factory level, those marginally adhere to the UNGPs and overall, the practice of UNGPs in the RMG sector is still at the early stage,” said Khondaker Golam Moazzem while adding that the process of institutionalisation of UNGPs was yet to be started in the RMG sector and underlined that a binding treaty in case of enforcement of UNGPs would facilitate the process.
The first step will be to strengthen the UNGP reporting system of factories, he said and suggested organising workshops and training on reporting UNGPs for the management staff even as he maintained, “Lack of corporatisation would be a bottleneck for the institutionalisation of UNGPs in RMG factories.”
About addressing the workers’ complaints and grievance mechanism, it was reportedly found that the number of official complaints was lower than that of unofficial complaints while the factory management claimed that unofficial complaints are mostly addressed through negotiation – giving verbal warnings.
Very few workers used the mechanism – only 12.7 per cent of the workers claimed using the grievance system, underlined the study report even as it added about 82.6 per cent complaints reported by the surveyed workers were related to verbal harassment, followed by 13.04 per cent physical and 7.25 per cent sexual even if majority of the workers also complained about inadequate compliance mechanisms in case of layoffs of the workers as per the labour act and labour rules while some 21.74 per cent complaints were related to extra work, 26.09 per cent problems about salary or overtime payment while 10.14 per cent about harassment by the co-workers and, in case of retrenchment, only 6.3 per cent of the workers mentioned that their factories provided three months’ notice in case of layoff of the workers.
“Factory level grievance systems do not necessarily ensure workers’ rights to justice,” the study revealed while adding that most of the factories thought that improving human rights conditions will also help improve the efficiency of the workers and increase the purchase orders while 79 per cent believe it will increase the fixed and operational costs of a factory.
Garments owners should be more aware of labour rights and wellbeing, underlined Ehsan-E-Elahi even as Md Mojibul Haque shed light on the need for reducing the gap between the owners and workers.
Expressing views on Bangladesh’s performance with reference to the UNGPs and the CPD’s findings, ILO specialist on worker activities Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed said: “All the labour laws and policies should be based on the ground of the UNGPs,” even as citing previous bad examples, labour leader Babul Akhter said many factory owners were unwilling to allow trade unions while many factory owners and workers were not aware of their rights and responsibilities and Bangladesh now needs factories that fully comply with labour laws.
In light of the views and opinions shared by the stakeholders, researchers, labour leaders and experts, it would perhaps be pertinent to add that Bangladesh would do well to do some catching up the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are concerned so that it is found wanting when it matters.