IEE Newsletter No. 24

UA Ruhr GC: Second Research Trip to Bangladesh in the Context of the MERCUR Project on Transnational Regulation of Labour Standards

Johannes Norpoth shares some of the experiences made during the three weeks of interviews conducted for this interdisciplinary project.

After a first research stay in Dhaka in November/December 2015 IEE research fellow Johannes Norpoth and post-doctoral researcher Christian Scheper from the Institute for Development Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen returned to Bangladesh's capitol from 24 November to 16 December for second series of interviews. The interdisciplinary research project on "Political Authority and Transnantional Governance-Arrangements: Regulation of Labour, Social and Environmental Standards in the Asian Textile and Apparel Industry" seeks to map and discern different forms of regulation. Combining a legal with a political science perspective, the interplay between public and private forms of regulation is the key point of interest in this context. Bangladesh and Cambodia were selected as case study countries due to different prevalent combinations of public and private regulation, in particular with regard to labour standards in the apparel industry.

Regulatory Developments in Bangladesh after Rana Plaza

In the context of Bangladesh the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex housing several garment factories and causing the death of more than 1,000 workers in 2013 has been the starting point for a number of reforms and different forms of regulatory initiatives. Beside changes in the national law and policy of Bangladesh, regulatory interventions comprise public policy reactions from the US and the EU as well as different instruments of transnational private regulation enlisting fashion brands and retailers as the buyers from Bangladeshi garment manufacturers.
In the field of transnational private regulation, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord) and the Alliance on Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance) were formed. Both of these initiatives have a five-year temporal scope until 2018 sharing the common feature that brands and retailers require their suppliers in Bangladesh to subject their factories to private inspections of fire and building safety and to subsequently implement indicated remediation measures. Moreover, these initiatives require training programmes on occupational safety and health at factory level. Yet, Accord and Alliance differ in their membership structure, in particular with regard to the involvement of unions, and some of their substantive rules. With regard to the Accord its character as a legally binding instrument between unions and brands has been strongly emphasized in political discussions.

Research Focus

The first visit to Bangladesh in 2015 served to explore viewpoints of local stakeholders on the regulation of labour, social and environmental standards in Bangladesh in general and sought to gather an understanding of which aspects of which regulatory initiatives mattered for different stakeholders. This second visit in November and December 2016 instead focused on two aspects: On the one hand the research team was interested in the broader issue of how the legal norms communicated through the post-Rana Plaza initiatives have been received by local actors. On the other, the research team addressed the more specific question of the legally binding character of the Accord mattered for local stakeholders. In the course of the research stay of 22 days, more than 30 interviews and background talks were conducted with different stakeholders, including garment factory managers, union leaders, representatives from governmental agencies, private initiatives and international organizations, foreign embassies and local research institutions. Even before delving into an in-depth analysis of the interview material in the coming weeks and months, it is obvious that the talks have already facilitated a deeper understanding of the logics followed by local actors as well as foreign governments, brands, and other transnational actors. Apart from the insightful interviews, the visit to some of the factories which have been remediated according to international safety standards since the initiatives taken after Rana Plaza, was one of the most interesting highlights of the research trip. While the progress made on safety issues by these larger players of the local garment industry is definitely impressive, it was also observable that some factories remain in operation despite their non-compliance with fire and building standards since they lack financing for the necessary remediation or relocation. Moreover, while fire and building safety has become an accepted focus of local activities, implementation and enforcement of other labour standards and rights, such as freedom of association, remains a far more difficult issue.

Further Research Activities in the Coming Weeks

The interviews conducted in Bangladesh will be complemented by interviews with representatives from the International Labour Organization and global union federations which were held in Geneva in December 2016 as well as further interviews with representatives from brands and retailers in Germany and the Netherlands to be taken during January and February 2017. Moreover, a second research stay in Cambodia is planned for February 2017.
The project is financed by the German Mercator Research Center Ruhr (MERCUR) for the period of two years.

NorpothJohannes Norpoth
Research Fellow
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Phone: +49 (0)234 / 32-19025
Fax: +49 (0)234 / 32-14294

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