As we approach the 4th anniversary of terrible tragedy at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, it’s important to hold on to the sense of shock we all had when we heard that over a thousand workers, full aware that their building was unsafe, went to work as usual so they wouldn’t lose their jobs, and instead lost their lives.
It’s important to remember because it’s this reality that drives the campaigning from unions around the world for fundamental rights. The fact is, unions can save lives, as well as livelihoods, where workers have the right to join them.
It’s also important because the government of Bangladesh seems to need reminding.
In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, unions both on the ground in Bangladesh and internationally, were involved in the creation of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety, an agreement between brands sourcing from Bangladesh and trade unions to systematically drive improvements to working conditions, with democratically elected workers’ representatives a key part of the monitoring process and the right for workers to refuse to enter unsafe premises.
As Owen Tudor noted last week, unions and their members now have a stronger voice in confronting unsafe conditions, making Bangladesh safer for workers and a better investment for brands seeking suppliers free of the taint of human rights abuse.
Instead of being rewarded for this, this year Bangladesh’s unions have been persecuted. The government and the country’s employers spent the first few weeks of 2017 sweeping up trade union leaders and activists under a range of flimsy charges, clearly looking to break the growing influence of unions.
The good news is that it soon became clear that they had miscalculated. A concerted international campaign by unions, soon backed by key brands and a threatened boycott of a prestigious employer summit, spooked the government into releasing the trade unionists and pledging to drop the charges against them. It also meant, in order to fix the mess they’d got themselves into, the government found themselves sitting around table with Bangladesh unions, in the country’s first formal tripartite talks. Far from being crushed, the unions are now suddenly formal social partners.
The government, however, is slow to learn, and whispers suggest that it is keen to reduce the scope of the Accord when its remit comes up for review. The next battle will be to keep the full range of powers the Accord can wield in intervening in dangerous workplaces, and its contribution to protecting the role of trade unionists as whistle blowers.
This weekend, a new international effort – again backed by global unions – is launched, looking to make it easier for unions to work with companies to ensure that fundamental workers’ rights are respected in their supply chains. The Transparency Pledge looks to change the secretive and complex nature of international sourcing by persuading companies to publish details of where they get their products, just as those signed up the Accord do. So far 17 companies have agreed to the terms of the pledge, but there’s a long way to go.
However, it’s clear that for all that the government is keen to forget it, the haunting memory of Rana Plaza continues to be a stark reminder of why workers need unions.