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).
None of the eight sub-indices of the UNGPs has reached the matured state yet, according to findings of a study revealed at a virtual dialogue on Saturday.
The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) conducted the study titled 'State of the UNGPs in the RMG Sector of Bangladesh'.
The survey-based study covered 603 enterprises in Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chattogram, and 606 workers of 200 factories to ensure national level representation.
CPD distinguished fellow Professor Mustafizur Rahman moderated the virtual dialogue on 'Building the RMG Sector in Adherence with the UNGPs', jointly organised by the CPD and Christian Aid Bangladesh.
Lack of corporatisation, faulty ways of public disclosure that is weakening transparency in human and labour rights practices, and lack of sufficient, transparent and effective public monitoring to ensure workers' rights were identified as the bottlenecks of institutionalisation of the UNGPs in the RMG factories.
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.
UNGPs are the global standard for states and businesses having three pillars that recognises states' and businesses' responsibility to protect, respect and remedy humans within their bounds.
CPD executive director Dr Fahmida made introductory remarks while Christian Aid Bangladesh country director Mr Pankaj gave the welcome address.
They informed that the issues are 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.
Terming the sector one of the key sources of foreign exchange earnings, Dr Fahmida 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.
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," he added.
The process of institutionalisation of UNGPs is yet to be started in the RMG sector, he said, adding 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.
"Lack of corporatisation would be a bottleneck for the institutionalisation of UNGPs in RMG factories," Mr Moazzem said.
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.
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.
Majority of the factories (81.6 per cent) have an official position on key human rights issues and public statements are disclosed in different forms - majority use posters (94.4 per cent).
There is a wide variation in public reporting of different issues, 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.
About addressing the workers' complaints and grievance mechanism, the study 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," according to the study report.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, it added.
Speaking at the event, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Labour and Employment Md Mojibul Haque shed light on the need for reducing the gap between the owners and workers.
He also called upon both factory owners and workers' leaders to discharge their responsibilities properly and stressed on amending the labour law so that the workers get justice.
Labour secretary Ehsan-E-Elahi said: "Garments owners should be more aware of labour rights and wellbeing."
Sharing the government's RMG-related plans and interventions, he said labour rules are currently being upgraded while the government has formulated a long-term action plan for the improvement of labour laws and labour-related practices - not only in the RMG sector, but also in other sectors.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) president Faruque Hassan stressed on developing a unified code of conduct to avoid the audit fatigue, conducting a comprehensive research in concentration with all the local and global standards, and bringing a positive change through apparel diplomacy and thorough research.
Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) vice president Mohammad Hatem stressed the need for ensuring fair price of the locally produced RMG products to ensure workers' rights.
BGMEA director Vidiya Amrit Khan said that factories under the trade body are much more transparent about audit-and compliance-related information.
Still, she said, an individual company might have different strategies, and opening/publishing web page-based data cannot be imposed.
She commented that the wage rate corresponds with the efficiency of the workforce.
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."
Citing previous bad examples, labour leader Babul Akhter said many factory owners are unwilling to allow trade unions while many factory owners and workers are not aware of their rights and responsibilities.
He also said that Bangladesh now needs factories that fully comply with labour laws and informed that there are many green and LEED certified units in the country.