14 February 2017.
Dhaka – Leaning against the office window, Syed Niaz glances at the bustling city of Dhaka with its multi-coloured jammed streets, horn-honking drivers, cycle rickshaws whisking away passengers, and ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis squeezing among thundering lorries. Niaz is part of the 26-people team of Better Work Bangladesh and a very familiar face in the sprawling ready-made garment industry in the country.
Supervising, advising and assessing compliance with labour standards in seven to 13 garment factories scattered across Greater Dhaka, one of the world’s largest mega-cities, Niaz makes sure fair working conditions are in place for the well-being of thousands of workers since the programme started in 2014. As an Enterprise Advisor, Niaz and his colleagues often act as the bridge between workers and managers in factories.
“I heard about Better Work and its operations before it came to Bangladesh,” Niaz says. “Its uniqueness and the fact that it combines both the influencing policy of the ILO and a very distinctive pragmatism really impressed me. It completes the picture and I am delighted to be part of this.”
Bangladesh’s 4500 garment factories, employing some 4 million workers, account for the second largest apparel and textile exporting industry in the world, behind only China. But poor pay and conditions have led to protests and strikes, making the role of Better Work an important one in the country.
“There are so many opportunities for us to bring change,” says Niaz. “In factories I advise, for instance, the monthly salary has been miscalculated in a few cases, depriving some of the workers of the minimum wage or the mandatory overtime pay.”
Niaz says he helped the management correct the faulty system by initiating a process that now pays the workers their right salaries. “When the workers saw the direct result of BWB’s influence in their payments, they came to me shouting dhonnobaad! (thank you in Bengali).”
Jahan Ishrat is also an Enterprise Advisor for Better Work Bangladesh. She sees the programme having an impact on the life of the workers in the premises overseen by her.
Ishrat recounts that working conditions inside factories have very much improved as Bangladesh’s clothing industry has expanded over the past thirty years. Only recently, though, have managers become more open to advice from international agencies, she says.
“Some management teams are open to sharing with us details, especially in terms of working hours. Others worry that admitting the workforce’s overtime would upset the brands they supply to, as many international companies have agreed on limiting working hours in their supplier factories,” Ishrat says. “So part of our work as Enterprise Advisors is to establish a trustworthy relationship with the factories based on our UN mandate.”
Niaz supports this view. “When we talk with the management about violations witnessed inside their factories, reactions vary,” he explains. “Our approach needs psychological skills to persuade the factories of the validity of our ideas. Better Work is about dialogue, listening and bringing a change in the mind-set of the industry.”
In some factories, Niaz adds, the management started to welcome Enterprise Advisors, thanking BWB for its work and sometimes admitting they were not aware that practices conducted inside the premises were in violation of labour standards and promptly correcting them.
“Factories ask us to retake certain training courses and talk about certain topics we brought up during our assessments and are eager to receive follow ups on what we discussed,” he says.
Also, 12 Better Work Bangladesh affiliated factories elected representative worker-management committees, or Participation Committees, inside their facilities last year and more of the programme’s 136 enterprises are now set to go through this process soon.
Participation Committees are trying to bridge a gap between managements and workers to establish better relationships between the two parties in order to avoid tensions that affect the country’s $30bn garment industry.
Prolonged interruption has, in fact, had a major impact on the economy of the developing country, given garment manufacturing makes up 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports.
“One of the most challenging issues is to ease the communication between the factory management and the Participation Committees,” Ishrat explains. “Preparing the latter to be considered ‘worth listening to’ can be challenging. But both workers and management understand that a better relationship can improve working conditions and productivity.”
Niaz darts a new look out the window and says with a smile: “Sometimes we do small and simple things, other times larger and more complex, but, certainly, we started making a difference.”