The maritime sector, despite some decline in recent years, continues to be critical to economic development and day-to-day survival in some Pacific Island countries. It remains an important source of jobs and income in the Pacific region and generates remittance transfers from seafarers of up to 25 per cent of GNP in some countries. However, if left unregulated, Pacific seafarers can be vulnerable to exploitation, while shipping registries may be unable to maintain competitiveness without the adoption of international standards.
The Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 came into force in 2013 and consolidated a number of existing maritime labour conventions and related recommendations. The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) , is designed to help achieve the twin goals of ensuring a ‘level playing field’ for quality ship owners and establish improve conditions of work for seafarers by prescribing certain minimum conditions of work.
The MLC has been widely ratified among Pacific island ILO member States including Tuvalu, Kiribati, Palau, Marshall Islands and Samoa. However, in some cases, member States require capacity support to implement the requirements of the Convention.
Since 2009, the ILO Office for Pacific Island Countries has provided tailored support to ILO member States to ratify and implement the MLC. This included engaging the Pacific International Maritime Law Association to conduct gap analyses of existing law. The ILO also held a range of awareness raising meetings with governments, employers and workers and assistance with the development of Action Plans to ratify the MLC.
Where possible and practicable, the Office has supported officials to attend training on the MLC at the ILO’s International Training Centre based in Turin.
FIJI Trades Union Congress National Secretary Felix Anthony says Government’s proposal to revise the national minimum wage had to be done for the right reasons.
“We are not interested in an artificial increase just because the general election is around the corner,” Mr Anthony said.
“Any process to increase the minimum wage must be done in an inclusive and transparent manner.
“And Government must take into account the real cost of living in today’s Fiji.
“They must wake up to the fact that $80 a week does not go very far in buying basic food items these days and that’s how much a person on the $2.32 minimum wage takes home.”
Speaking in Parliament last week on Thursday, Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations Minister Jone Usamate outlined Government’s proposal to revise the national minimum wage and wage regulation orders.
The wage regulation review was for the security, manufacturing, printing, building and civil engineering, roads, sawmilling and logging, hotel, mining and quarrying, wholesale and retail and garment sectors.
Mr Anthony said given that the FTUC was the employees representative in tripartite affairs, he was surprised at the announcement.
“So far we have had no discussions despite the fact I have written to the Minister about our $4 an hour minimum wage campaign,” he said.
“He (Mr Usamate) talks about consultation, but there has been none.
“We certainly hope the consultation process and proposed increases will take into account all aspects and not just simply worrying about making big businesses happy.
“We have a tendency in this country where big businesses use small businesses like the corner shop to determine what our minimum wage should be.
“They say they can’t support a $4 minimum wage because the corner shop won’t be able to afford it.
“Our answer is this — there ought to be machinery in place where any employer that pleads inability to pay should be inspected and dispensation be granted on a case by case basis.
“Obviously, the businesses who can afford to pay the $4 an hour minimum wage will attract better workers while the ones that cannot will attract the type of employees they can afford.”
The Fiji Teachers Union General Secretary Agni Deo Singh has welcomed the recent rulings of the Employment Relations Tribunal for a hearing for individual worker’s redress.
“We are most happy that the rights of the individual employees are in Government ministries to seek redress through the employment tribunal by submitting individual grievances. The rights have now been restored and there is a fair hearing given to them,” he said.
“I think it’s a return to where we were before the decrees took away our fundamental rights.
“So, all public servants now can seek redress by submitting their individual grievances to the employment tribunal in the Ministry of Labour.”
In a recent case, a school teacher won an appeal against the Ministry of Education’s decision not to promote him to head teacher.
Chief Tribunal of the Employment Relations Tribunal, Sainivalati Kuruduadua, has ordered that Naseem Ali be promoted as a head teacher of Ahmadiyya Muslim Primary School of Lautoka.
Mr Singh said this would encourage others who had been victims of unfair decisions to submit their cases to the tribunal.
Electrical faults are the leading cause of fires in the Bangladesh garment industry. ILO with the support of the US Department of Labor has helped build capacity of fire inspectors to spot electrical risks.
Shahjadi Sultana is one of just a handful of female fire inspectors in Bangladesh.
Following her promotion to Warehouse Inspector in 2015, Shahjadi Sultana has checked some 500 establishments across Bangladesh for fire safety. However since taking part in specialized electrical safety training in late 2016 she is now able to assess important electrical systems with a more critical eye while carrying out inspections.
Organized by the International Labour Organization’s “Improving Fire and General Building Safety in Bangladesh ” project funded by the US Department of Labor, the training helped participants gain knowledge of electrical engineering considerations as they apply to safety. The need for the training is clear. According to Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence Department (BFSCD) figures, approximately 75 percent of fires in the garment industry are caused by electrical faults.
For Shahjadi, gaining knowledge of electrical safety issues marked another step in her development as an inspector. After joining the Fire Service in 1992 as a telephone operator – at a time when women were not allowed to work in the field – the inspector has slowly worked her way up through the ranks. Shahjadi is now one of five women working in fire service operations and inspection cells. She has been in the field for almost 14 years – 4 as a sub-officer and another 10 as the station officer at Chittagong’s Kalurghat – when she had to go out to numerous fires many of which were caused by electric short circuits. She now knows a lot more about reducing the danger of fires caused by electrical faults.
315 fire inspectors and representatives of the labour inspectorate and industry organizations took part in the three-day training sessions. These helped raise awareness of potential electrical safety hazards, build understanding on the design of fire detection and alarm systems as well as provide a basic understanding of schematics. Classroom work was complemented by field visits to help trainees put new skills into practice in a factory environment.
The new knowledge has been put to good use. “There are factories with their substations above the ground floor which should be on the ground floor. I have also found on a number of occasions that the earthing is not quite right and immediately drew the attention of the management,” Shahjadi explains. She adds that the standard checklist of points to cover while on inspections did not go into great detail when it came to electrical issues, as fire personnel typically did not have the skills or knowledge to identify certain hazards.
Making inspections more robust
“In light of the training on electrical safety, new points will be added to the checklist to make the inspections more robust,” she says. The importance of the training is highlighted by Brig. Gen Ali Ahmed Khan, Director-General of the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence Department. “Electrical short circuits are the main cause of fires in the garment sector. This training will better equip the fire service to reduce this risk and ensure compliance with national codes and standards on building and worker safety, not only in garment factories but across all industries.”
Funded by the US Department of Labor, the Improving Fire and General Building Safety in Bangladesh project focused on improving fire and building safety in the Ready Made Garment sector. The project was carried out in close collaboration and coordination with relevant national and international stakeholders and partners and is expected to lead to enhanced enforcement of relevant fire and general building safety laws and regulations — consistent with international labour, fire and building standards and good practices.
At first, the police knocked. Then they tried to kick the door down.
Protests over low wages had erupted at dozens of garment factories in Bangladesh, one of the top suppliers of clothing for global brands like H&M and Gap, and the officers had come to question Jahangir Alam, the president of a local trade union in Ashulia, a suburb of the capital, Dhaka. They told his wife that he would be back within a few hours.
That was a month ago.
Instead, his wife said, Mr. Alam has sat in a jail cell so dark he could not see his own hands. She said they had spoken briefly when she finally tracked him down to a Dhaka court.
Mr. Alam is one of at least 14 labor activists and workers who have been detained since the unrest began in December, according to arrest records. The demonstrations disrupted work at factories that supply clothing to global fashion companies like Inditex of Spain, owner of the Zara brand, and PVH, which owns the Tommy Hilfiger brand. The police say the unrest has led to the suspension or firing of roughly 1,500 workers, many of whom took part in the protests.
The police have accused the activists of inciting vandalism and other crimes, and several factories have pressed charges against many of their workers.
But labor rights groups say the government is trying to scare workers into silence by detaining innocent people. They say the detentions, and the looming risk of more arrests, are the biggest setback for workers since the collapse of Rana Plaza, a building that housed garment factories, where more than 1,100 people died in 2013.
That tragedy, one of the worst industrial disasters in history, exposed major safety hazards at factories in Bangladesh, which churns out a steady stream of low-cost goods. And it prompted some of the world’s biggest brands to push for better conditions for the workers who make their clothes.
By some measures, conditions have improved. But the brands now say the arrests and firings could undermine the progress they have made.
In letters to Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and other officials, retailers urged the government to take action to protect workers, including addressing wage issues that had led to the protests. The minimum wage in Bangladesh is 32 cents an hour.
They stopped short, though, of threatening further action.
“Such situations damage the industry’s reputation and confidence levels, which we, together with the government and social partners, are all working so hard to bolster,” wrote Rob Wayss, the executive director of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The accord, a coalition of retailers, is dedicated to improving safety for the country’s garment workers.
Gap, in a separate letter, said it was troubled by the recent events, and urged officials to ensure that no one was targeted “solely because of any association with a trade union or other group.”
The prime minister’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Bangladesh exports billions of dollars’ worth of clothes each year, making it the world’s second-largest exporter of ready-made garments after China. But its factories are efficient for some of the same reasons that they have been deadly: overcrowded buildings, limited oversight and a government that has historically repressed workers’ efforts to organize and fight for better conditions.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, retailers formed two coalitions dedicated to improving the lives of workers: the accord, led by H&M, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which includes Gap and Walmart.
Both groups have created safety standards and mechanisms to enforce them, although the accord, with a legally binding arbitration provision, is largely seen as the stronger of the two. The alliance has no such clause, but it can impose financial penalties and expel members that violate its terms.
Both groups point to progress, like the installation of fire doors and regular safety inspections. But as international attention has waned in the years since Rana Plaza, worker rights groups have expressed concern that the gains could be lost.
“Now the spotlight is off Bangladesh,” said Richard Appelbaum, a labor and worker rights expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The government is responding more typically as it would have responded several years ago, if it could have.”
The police came for Mr. Alam at night, said his wife, Jhorna Begum. When he did not return after several days, Ms. Begum scraped together about $12 to pay a lawyer who helped track him down to a local jail. The couple saw each other briefly when Mr. Alam appeared in court, just long enough for them to shout at each other across a crowded room.
With two children at home, Ms. Begum said she could not afford to fight his case. She recently returned to work as a machine operator for the Palmal Group, another garment maker.
“We live hand to mouth, waiting for the paycheck at the end of the month,” Ms. Begum said, tears in her eyes. “I don’t know when he’ll get out — how am I supposed to run my family without him?”
While Ms. Begum was willing to give her name to a reporter, many garment industry workers are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals by the government. Labor rights workers suspect that agents of the government or factory owners ransacked a number of union offices after the protests. And the death of Aminul Islam, a labor activist who was found tortured and killed in 2012, is still fresh in many minds.
The complaints against the 14 people who have been arrested also include charges that could cover more than 1,000 possible suspects — a tool that can help the police arrest people in the future, according to labor lawyers. Some of the people who were arrested, for example, had been named in an unrelated political violence case that has been open since 2015.“When they find someone they want to put in jail, they enter that person’s name into the case,” said Jyotirmoy Barua, a lawyer based in Dhaka, who is representing protesters who have been charged with conspiring to harm the state. “The cases are creating unrest, fear.”This month, protesters gathered in Dhaka, chanting and holding up signs as a plainclothes officer took notes nearby.Abul Hossain, the president of the Dhaka chapter of the Workers’ Party of Bangladesh, said workers were frustrated by stagnant wages in a country whose cost of living had risen over the past few years. Wages have risen only twice in the past decade, even as inflation has risen as much as 10 percent a year, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
Workers expected their pay to be reviewed last year by a government wage board that can meet every three years. When that did not happen, they started protesting.
Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a trade association that represents factory owners, said factories, too, had come under pressure: Costs have risen 17.5 percent annually for the last two years, he said, even as global clothing prices have decreased.
Mr. Rahman added that while global retail brands had called on Bangladeshi factories to improve safety standards and wages, they had resisted paying higher prices to help compensate for the increased costs.
He also said that fewer than 1,500 employees had been fired, and that some had returned to work.
Both Gap and H&M said that they supported a regular wage review mechanism to ensure stability in the future, and that they were monitoring the situation closely.
Labor advocates, though, say the global companies should be doing more, since billion-dollar brands like H&M have a lot of leverage with local factories and the government.
A spokesman for H&M, Patrick Shaner, said in an email that the company had no plans to change its sourcing arrangements.
Other companies that buy clothes from the factories that are currently pressing charges, including Abercrombie & Fitch, PVH and American Eagle Outfitters, did not respond to requests for comment.
“At a certain point in time you have to wonder just how much the brands and retailers will tolerate,” said Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights group based in Washington that is among the most active nonprofits working in Bangladesh’s garment industry. “They can tell the factories to drop these charges.”