GARMENT workers on Monday (January 14) marched in Dhaka city demanding assurances for a safe workplace and trade union rights in the garment industry in Bangladesh.
Over 100 garment workers, mostly women, took part in the march organised by the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF).
The workers, during the march, carried placards and banners with different demands, including ‘safe workplace’ and trade union rights.
The procession began from in front of the National Press Club and concluded at the Paltan Crossing after passing the High Court and Topkhana Road.
A short rally was held in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka city before the procession.
NGWF President Amirul Haque Amin presided over the rally that was addressed by NGWF General Secretary Safia Parveen and central leaders Faruq Khan, Sultana Akter, Jesmin Akter, Kabir Hossain, Nazneen Akter and Md Rafiq, among others.
The speakers said that 55 serious factory fires had taken place in the Bangladesh garment sector since 1990. In these fires, 566 garment workers were killed while several thousands were injured – some of them permanently.
Besides, 64 garment workers were killed in the Spectrum Garments factory collapse in 2005. But, safe workplaces and health and safety for garment workers were not ensured till now.
The speakers demanded that ‘safe workplaces’ be established in the garment industry for the workers.
They stressed the need for a joint initiative of the factory owners, government, buyers and trade union organisation in this regard.
Expressing resentment, the speakers said a ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Health & Safety’ was prepared two years back at a workshop, organised jointly by BGMEA & trade union organisations.
The workshop was attended by the representatives of the government and buyers. It was decided, at the workshop, that all buyers (sourcing companies) shall sign the ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Health & Safety’.
But till now, no buyers other than PVH & TCHIBO signed this document. It is imperative for all buyers to sign this document and ensure health and safety of the garment workers in Bangladesh.
Expressing anger, the speakers said, ‘The formation of proper trade union organisation is not allowed in the garment sector although trade union rights are a basic right of the workers.
‘Unrestricted trade union rights should be given immediately in the garment sector.’
l Meanwhile, every year, the shipping industry sends 800 to 900 end-of-life ships to yards where they are recycled, mainly by hand, to recover the steel.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s biggest ship dismantlers but shipbreaking remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
According to 2012 figures (to mid-October) from the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, 98 per cent of ships were dismantled in five countries: India, Bangladesh, China, Turkey and Pakistan.
In Bangladesh– the world’s second largest shipbreaking country – the national ship importing body the Bangladesh Ship Breaking Association (BSBA) reports that more than 200 ships were imported into the country for scrapping in 2012.
Although that doesn’t compare to the world leader India, which processed 527 ships in 2012, it’s the highest figure for Bangladesh since 2009.
BSBA views the boom as a positive sign that the industry is getting back on track after a 2009 court order, which banned the importation of old ships that had not been completely cleared of asbestos, PCBs, heavy metals and sludge, which effectively saw the industry grind to a halt as none of the country’s 100-odd shipbreaking yards were permitted to carry out environmental clearances.
These restrictions have since been relaxed by the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, hence the rise in the number of ships being recycled in Bangladesh, but not everyone is happy.
Least of all the country’s labour and environmental activists who see the re-expansion of the industry as a dangerous signal for both Bangladesh’s workers and its environment.
Ship recycling is vital to the Bangladesh economy.
Said to be worth around US$1 billion, it employs approximately 200,000 people.
The salvaged steel recovered from the ships has been estimated to account for as much as half of the country’s steel quota.
And yet, shipbreaking is also one of the most dangerous industries in the world.
Approximately 70 to 80 per cent of all end-of-life ships end up on tidal beaches in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan where poorly-trained, poorly-equipped workers break down the ships by hand. Hundreds of workers are injured, maimed or killed in work-related accidents every year.
Some of the ships are as big as 20 storeys high and 300 metres long.
They contain toxic materials such as asbestos, lead and other heavy metals which poison workers and damage coastal ecosystems. Shipbreaking workers are also routinely exposed to carcinogenic fumes from melting metal and lead paint.
Trade unions are forbidden at shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh which means the widespread exploitation of workers – some of whom are under- and even unpaid – continues unchecked.
In addition, 20 per cent of the country’s shipbreaking workforce is said to be under the age of 15.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform recently told the story of Khorshed Alam, a 16-year-old worker earning US$3 for a 12hr shift at the SRS shipbreaking yard in Chittagong who was crushed to death by a metal plate in July.
Both BSBA and the Bangladeshi Ministry of Industry claim that the shipbreaking industry has been cleaned up in recent years.
However, human rights and environmental organisations don’t agree.
They say that the absence of a monitoring system needed to check the hazardous and toxic substances released during the shipbreaking process continues to put workers, and the environment, at risk.
Critics also say that the importers do not adhere to national or international minimum standards.
According to the Department of Explosives (attached to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources), Greenpeace and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), one worker dies every week and one shipbreaker is injured at work every day.
These figures, however, exclude deaths by diseases caused by the toxic fumes and materials which ship breakers are exposed to at all times.
Health and safety incidents at the shipyards – which are mostly located in Sitakunda, some 20 kilometres north of the port city of Chittagong – go mostly unrecorded as entry to the shipyards is highly restricted.
Mohammad Omar Faruq, project manager of OSHE, agrees, citing the fact that while the families of ship breakers killed at work are entitled to 100 per cent compensation (which actually works out at as little as 100,000 taka, or US$1,450), injured workers get hardly any support – financial or otherwise. Nor has any real training been implemented.
Mohammad Ali Shahin, who works with a local NGO in Sitakunda, said that in the midst of the political turmoil surrounding next year’s election, cronyism and corruption mean that the ship recyclers are able to import huge old and uncertified ships into the country with little government interference.
Little attention is paid to national or international laws, he says. In particular, there is no enforcement of Hazardous Waste Management Rules and Ship Breaking rules issued by the Industry Ministry, or International Maritime Organisation, ILO or UN guidelines.
In addition, importing countries buy ships from countries which haven’t signed the Basel Convention on transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal.
After the importing success of 2012, BSBA members are keen to keep shipbreaking numbers up. They say they have the capacity to dismantle even more ships than they are already doing, regardless of the consequences.