Tag Archive | "Bangladesh"

Garment factory collapse

Corporations Have a Duty to Practice Public Responsibility

It took the disastrous collapse of a building in Bangladesh that housed several garment factories and the loss of more than 1,000 lives for the world to begin to pay attention to the plight of garment workers there.

The workers are paid the minimum monthly wage of about $37, occasionally go unpaid, and protesters are often intimidated. There is no collective bargaining, no unions without the owners’ consent. Lack of regulation and poor, badly enforced safety standards combine to create a dangerous workplace.

Last November, 112 workers were killed in a fire in another garment factory near Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. Last Monday, more than 20 workers were injured in Cambodia when a metal and concrete shelter outside a garment factory collapsed, tumbling into a pond.

After the November fire, the Walt Disney Company decided to pull its operations out of Bangladesh. The European Union’s trade commissioner warned that if the Bangladeshi government failed to take prompt action to improve labor standards, the EU would consider suspending Bangladesh’s duty- and quota-free access to EU markets.

In the aftermath of the recent tragedy, the government announced a labor law reform package aimed at complying with international standards.

Bangladeshi woman

A Bangladeshi woman holds a portrait of a relative lost in the garment factory collapse (AP)

The garment industry is huge in Bangladesh, as many fashion companies and big retailers moved there from China, choosing Bangladesh’s highly developed system for manufacturing and shipping large volumes of high-quality garments at a low price. Now second only to China in export volume, Bangladesh’s garment production accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports and is worth more than $19 billion, employing almost 4 million workers, mostly women, in 5,000 factories.

On May 13, more than 30 mostly European companies — including H&M, Mango, and the parent company of Zara — signed a legally binding labor safety agreement. Among American companies, only Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, signed on. PVH also committed to pay $2.5 million toward factory safety improvements. But several other major American retailers — among them Wal-Mart, Sears, and the Gap — have resisted signing the accord.

Under the agreement, disputes will be settled by binding arbitration, enforceable in the courts of the retailers’ home countries. However, the National Retail Federation, which represents many American stores, has criticized this provision as “legally questionable,” and “a process that serves only the unions, not the workers they represent.”

Gap representatives said because the “litigation landscape is different in the U.S. than in Europe,” it would sign the agreement if the legally binding provision is replaced by a provision under which a retailer not complying with the standards would be expelled from the program.

Wal-Mart and Japan’s Fast Retailing Co. have decided to implement their own programs. Wal-Mart proposes to include hiring and paying an outside auditor to inspect every factory in Bangladesh that produces goods for Wal-Mart and publish the results on its website. It is also establishing an independent call center for garment workers in those factories to report unsafe conditions.

How effective are private, voluntary efforts to address labor and safety issues? Honestly, not very. “Despite many good-faith efforts over the past 15 years, private regulation has had limited impact,” says Richard M. Locke, who has spent more than a decade studying the issue. “Child labor, hazardous working conditions, excessive hours, and poor wages continue to plague many workplaces in the developing world, creating scandal and embarrassment for the global companies that source from these factories and farms.”

Locke focused his study on Nike, whose image was tarnished in the 1990s because of accusations of underpaying workers in Indonesia, use of child labor in Cambodia and Pakistan, and poor working conditions in Vietnam and China. In response, in 1992, Nike developed its own corporate standards for working conditions, wages, hours, and health and safety, and required its suppliers to accept those standards. It also uses private audits to ensure compliance and expanded its oversight staff, spending millions of dollars to improve working conditions at its supplier factories.

Locke says he found “Nike auditors and compliance staff to be serious, hard-working, and moved by genuine concern for workers and their rights,” and was impressed with “Nike’s commitment to labor standards.”

Nevertheless, he concluded, Nike has been unable to ensure that its high standards have consistently been met. While some factories have complied with the code of conduct, “others have suffered from persistent problems with wages, work hours, and employee health and safety.”

Nike isn’t alone. “Consider the global brand empires,” Locke says. “They want high-quality products delivered as quickly and cheaply as possible. They also fear that harsh working conditions could, if discovered, create scandal and hence risk to their reputation. Yet, because they are competing with one another, they are unwilling to pay extra for improved working conditions, which could lead to price increases that threaten market share.”

The reality is that many developing countries refuse to enforce even their own regulations. These problems are systemic, and the solutions must be systemic, as well.

Private initiatives and voluntary self-regulation are important incentives to government action, which is essential to promote and protect labor rights. And government regulation and functioning institutions are essential if private initiatives are to succeed. A few decades ago, several multinational corporations set goals of social responsibility.

The results, however, were mixed. So a shift has taken place from simply creating those goals to devising means to ensure enforcement. Public-private partnership is essential to make this happen.

Market pressure is essential to ensure compliance by suppliers, ethical investing by large institutions, and auditing and certification. The United Nations’ Global Compact Initiative and Guiding Principles are laudable. They are based on a three-pillar framework: the state’s duty to protect human rights; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and the need for greater access to effective remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuse.

In addition, several federal and state statutes have imposed due diligence requirements on corporations with the goal of addressing human rights concerns. A new class of for-profit public benefit corporations are in development. Last month in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Public Benefit Corporation Act, which states that benefit corporations are “intended to produce a public benefit and to operate in a responsible and sustained manner” while also taking into account shareholder interests.

Notably, directors of such corporations are authorized to consider social, environmental, and other goals in addition to maximization of profits as they make decisions, which is a major change from the customary bottom-line thinking.

Benefit corporations and corporate social responsibility norms demonstrate how far we’ve come. Only the marketplace will demonstrate how far we’re willing to go.

Ved Nanda (vnanda@law.du. edu) is Thompson G. Marsh Professor of Law and director of the International Law Program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

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Short Summay

Critical Analysis: Bangladeshi Garment Factory Nightmares

 

Bangladeshi rescuers from a youth group gesture for help at the site of a building that collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. (BBC)

Bangladeshi rescuers from a youth group gesture for help at the site of a building that collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. (BBC)

A woman was recently pulled out of the rubble of an eight-story building that collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  She was alive and had survived, buried in the rubble, for seventeen days.  She was one of the fortunate ones who survived this deadly industrial accident with a death toll of over one thousand people and counting.  About one thousand more people were seriously injured in the collapse.  Most of those individuals were women who worked in clothing factories.  It is important to note that the garment industry has created jobs for millions of women, “helping them to break out of a life of dependency and grinding poverty.”  While this is beneficial for many Bangladeshi women, it comes at a high price.

Although this particular accident is “one of the deadliest industrial disasters in history,” factory accidents like this are becoming seemingly more and more common.  A very similar accident happened in this exact same town less than ten years ago.  There have also been fires, stampedes, and other incidents at garment factories, resulting in hundreds of deaths.  As the number of people working in garment factories in Bangladesh is at approximately four million people and continues to grow, the number of deaths continues to increase.  However, in many of the cases, the deaths could have been prevented.  Many of the deaths were a result of locked exits preventing workers from escaping.  Additionally, one senior government official, Mainuddin Khondker, said that “50% of factories are located on premises which are not safe.”  Despite this issue, no action has been taken against a garment factory for “violation of safety rules, inadequate fire safety or . . . against landlords for violation of building codes.”

The owners of the building and factories involved in this accident are now under investigation because of allegations that they ordered workers to continue working “despite cracks appearing in the structure the day before.”  The combination of poor building materials and heavy machinery are what likely led to this collapse.  Although the immediate focus is on the owners of the building and factories, blame is spreading to Western retailers and clothing brands.  77% of Bangladesh’s exports are garments, and it is Western companies that “put heavy pressure on prices, resulting in bad pay and conditions for workers.”  The Bangladeshi government, industry, and workers are putting together a plan to begin improving worker safety and the European Union stated that it may consider trade action against Bangladesh if improvements are not made.  Although such improvements are a step in the right direction, we must ask what role Western retailers and clothing brands should play in all of this.

Kalpona Akter, a former child garment worker in Bangladesh and now the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, opined that “more tragedies can be prevented only if the multinational corporations and retailers whose goods are produced at these factories are willing to stand up and do what is right.”  Many large companies, such as Wal-mart, refuse to take responsibility for what is happening and are not taking action to ensure that these workers have better factory conditions and pay.  Action on behalf of these companies is necessary to fully ensure that circumstances such as those in Bangladesh change.  Although some are hopeful that this tragedy will lead to change in the Bangladeshi government, what will it take for Western corporations, retailers, consumers to demand the change that is so desperately needed?

Rachel Sipkin is a 3L and the Training Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Critical Analysis: Is the Legitimacy of the Bangladesh Tribunal at Stake?

Islamist activists protested against the prosecution of their leaders on charges stemming from a war of independence 40 years ago. (NDTV)

Islamist activists protested against the prosecution of their leaders on charges stemming from a war of independence 40 years ago. (NDTV)

The International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh is an ongoing court mandated to investigate and prosecute individuals who committed atrocities during Bangladesh’s war of independence with Pakistan in 1971.

On February 5, 2013, the Tribunal sentenced Jamatt-e-Islami chief Abdul Kader Mullah to life for his alleged role in crimes committed during the 1971 independence war. Mullah was convicted on five of six counts, including murder and rape as crimes against humanity. The ruling sparked nearly two weeks of angry mass protests throughout Bangladesh resulting in parliament amending a law that will now allow the state to retroactively appeal against the life sentence and seek the death penalty.

Under the amended law, the government and others can now appeal against verdicts at the International Criminal Tribunal. The amendment also gives powers to the special tribunal to prosecute organizations or political parties who were allegedly involved in the war crimes. As eight of the accused are Jamaat party leaders, many within the party believe the change in the law is nothing but an attempt by the government to destroy it. However, the remaining two accused are members of Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

According to the BBC, the amended law puts the political rivals of the current Prime Minister on edge. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made prosecuting war crimes a key goal of her government, critics have accused the government of pursuing political vendetta through the tribunal. Furthermore, as the majority of the accused are from Jamaat Party, if the party is indicted and then found guilty, the party can “be banned” from politics.

Another critique of this amended law and its effect on the tribunal is that it falls below the international standards required for a fair trial. According to Human Rights Watch, retroactive legislation violates fair trial standards because it undermines the work the Tribunal has done thus far. Although the government, including the Law Minister, stated that it had been drafted to ensure equal rights for both the government and the convicted, the law still grants extensive power, retroactively, to the prosecution to appeal decisions by the Tribunal.

The impact the amended law will have on the Bengali political climate or the effectiveness of the Tribunal is unclear. Even though government supporters believe that the amendment will positively affect the Tribunal and allow for fairer trials, many believe that the amendment will cause more hardship for the Tribunal long-term. For example, as the legitimacy hangs in the balance, Human Right Watch notes that some defense witnesses have decided not to go to court and that there is concern the judges will be afraid to hand out sentences other than the death penalty. Thus, as one commentator succinctly put, “instead of explaining to the public the separation of powers and the rule of law . . . the government has now directly intervened in the trial process.”

Victoria Kelley is a 3L and Alumni Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Politics

 

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News Post: India’s National River Linking Project

On February 27, India’s Supreme Court ordered the implementation of the country’s ambitious National River Linking Project “in a time-bound manner.”  The impetus of the project – originally commissioned in 1982 – was to improve management of water resources.  It aims to link 30 major rivers, and will involve diverting the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers.  India claims the project will “enhance its irrigation potential” to meet demand for grain from a population “estimated to reach 1.5 billion by 2050.” The project would accomplish this goal by allowing storage and transfer of water between India’s arid states and those with a water surplus.

The Ganges River Delta

Neighboring states and environmental organizations have opposed the project since it was formally introduced in 2002.  One concern is that the large-scale diversion could cause ecological disaster.  Bangladesh, India’s downstream neighbor, is particularly vulnerable.  The nation’s agricultural and environmental interests depend upon a healthy Ganges and Brahmaputra watercourse.

India assured Bangladesh– once in 2005, again in 2006, and most recently in 2010 – that they would make no unilateral decisions on the project’s implementation.  However, India is in the process of building 700 dams, many of which would facilitate the River Linking Project.  Moreover, many of these dams affect river flow into Bangladesh.   This suggests the table is already set for implementation of the project.  The Supreme Court’s order merely clears a path.

It appears India intends to implement the National River Linking Project regardless of concerns from neighboring states.  However, because the project would affect trans-boundary watercourses, a question remains as to whether its implementation violates customary international law.  For instance, if India is affecting Bangladesh’s equitable and reasonable apportionment of the Brahmaputra or Ganges rivers, the project may be precluded by the equitable and reasonable use doctrine.  Moreover, if India is causing significant harm to Bangladesh’s reasonable and equitable use of the rivers, the project may be in violation of the no significant harm doctrine.  Alternatively, while not yet recognized as customary international law, there is movement toward requiring countries to protect international watercourses and their ecosystems through due diligence.  While currently only soft law, this obligation could be persuasive in determining what steps the international community might have to take if the National River Linking Project moves forward and Bangladesh cries foul.

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Sources: LA Times, The Economist, Indian All Assam Students' Union

News Post: India and Bangladesh Sign Land Swap Deal

Sources: LA Times, The Economist, Indian All Assam Students' Union

Sources: LA Times, The Economist, Indian All Assam Students' Union

Last week the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh signed a watershed agreement resulting in a dramatic change to the messy border created during the fall of the British Empire in the 1940s.  The agreement will exchange 201 plots of land or “enclaves,” which are pockets of Indian communities surrounded by Bangladesh, and vice versa.  The long-overdue agreement will help to address the abject poverty faced by those living within the enclaves, as well as the border, trade and transit disputes that rifle the region.

Sanjoy Hazarika, an analyst with the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research in New Delhi believes the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheik Hasina Wajed, is responsible for many of the improvements between Indian and Bangladeshi relations.  After the Prime Minister turned over suspects wanted by India shortly after her election in 2008, Mr. Hazarika argues that “India has bent over backward to try and improve relations involving water and trade” with Bangladesh.  The border disputes have led to a lack of law, as well as a deficiency in meeting the basic needs of enclave residents, including electricity, access to healthcare and employment opportunities.  Because “a lot will depend on how it’s played out locally,” Mr. Hazarika argues that the growth of local markets at the grass-roots level is a vital addition to the political deal.

Additionally, the territorial exchanges should address issues of citizenship that have existed since the conception of the enclave arrangement.  Wilhelm Schendel notes in his book “Stateless in South Asia: The making of the India Bangladesh Enclaves” that essentially no thought was given to the residents of enclaves “when what was then East Pakistan and India agreed to impose passport and visa controls for the first time . . .”  By not taking into consideration their own citizens living in the “pocket territories” surrounded by the foreign state, the policy, in effect, created areas of “statelessness.”  Residents could not acquire passports within their respective enclaves, thus forcing them to illegally cross foreign territory to reach their parent state in an attempt to attain a passport.  They would then have to travel the hundreds of miles to the consulate of the foreign state in order to acquire a visa to return home legally.  The new agreement should address the citizens who essentially were abandoned in the passport and visa arrangements.

However, not everyone is excited about the recent agreement.  The day after the signing on September 6, the Indian All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) burnt effigies of the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, demanding the leaders abandon the agreement that relinquishes land to Bangladesh.  The advisor to AASU stated that “the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister betrayed the people of Assam by giving away a portion of Assam’s land to Bangladesh and asked whether the Government of India would be ready to give away any portion of land in Kashmir to Pakistan.”  The President of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) also protested the land border agreement arguing that it proves the Chief Minister “does not have the courage to stand up in the interest of the State . . .” He went on to say that the Chief Minister failed to “discuss the issue in Assembly or with the civil society before taking” action, and thus has “no moral right to continue in the chair.”

Although the agreed exchange of land boundaries will help to ease border issues and hopefully improve the lives of the individuals living within the regions, it is indisputable that India will suffer a net loss of 40-square-kilometres through the agreement.  In addition to protests from the AASU and AGP, India’s political opposition, Bharative Janata Party, is utilizing the opportunity to attack the ruling Congress Party as a soft and weak government.  Only time will tell how the agreement will play out in the political realm, given the declining support for each government back home.

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