Dáil debates

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Topical Issue Debate

Workplace Safety

3:30 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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We were all shocked and appalled by the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh on 24 April, which has now claimed more than 900 lives. The figures remain sketchy because it is believed a number of the workers who died in the factory were undocumented. We will never know the true number of people killed. It is now the world’s deadliest industrial accident since India’s Bhopal disaster in 1984. The breaking news is that a fire has broken out at another clothing factory in Bangladesh and has killed eight clothing workers. The reports are that most of the workers at the facility in the industrial district of Dhaka had already gone home for the night when the fire broke out, so it could have been a lot worse. We have heard stories of the difficulties factory workers have in getting out of buildings in cases such as this, with bars on windows and security features.

While it is common knowledge that garment workers face extremely bad working conditions in Bangladesh, these disasters have tragically shown how important it is that the industry be radically reformed and the urgent need for strong workers’ rights. Several announcements have been made in the past couple of weeks by senior officials in the EU and US regarding the preferential trade agreement Bangladesh currently enjoys in an effort to promote urgency within the Bangladeshi Government to deal with the significant human rights violations that have developed within the garment sector in particular. Pressurising the Bangladeshi Government in such a way is not in itself enough, however, and in line with the guiding principles, private industry must play its part in improving conditions for the 3.5 million garment workers struggling to survive in Bangladesh.

My call is for the Government to immediately use all avenues to ensure brands and retailers active in Ireland and the Single European Market accede to the Bangladesh fire and building safety agreement. On 17 January 2013, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on recent casualties in textile factory fires, notably in Bangladesh. The resolution called on all textile brands sourcing from Bangladesh to join the efforts initiated by local and international NGOs and trade unions to implement a programme to improve fire and building safety. The collapse of Rana Plaza and last night’s fire demonstrate the acute precarious health and safety conditions in the Bangladesh garment industry and the widespread disregard of the lives of the workers in chasing huge profits. This is an urgent appeal because 15 May is the critical deadline for brands and retailers to accept the policies of the Bangladesh fire and building safety agreement. I appeal to the Minister to respond to the crisis.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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The recent collapse of a building in Dhaka that housed a number of garment factories was a tragedy resulting in the loss of more than 900 lives. Today we learned of a fire in another clothing factory in Dhaka in which at least eight people have lost their lives. We all share a sense of shock at these events and wish to extend our sympathies to all who lost family members and loved ones. The tragic events bring the issue of working conditions in factories in Bangladesh, particularly the lack of basic health and safety rules, into sharp relief. All those working in the garment or any other industry in Bangladesh, or any country, have a basic right to decent, safe and secure working conditions.

The Bangladesh fire and safety agreement referred to by the Deputy is an agreement between a number of trade unions, NGOs and multinational textile retailers. It is aimed at improving safety standards at production sites and encouraging those concerned to pay for such measures, in particular by establishing an independent inspection system and actively supporting the creation of health and safety committees in factories. This is a very worthwhile initiative that the European Parliament, in a resolution adopted on 17 January, welcomed. It called on all relevant textile brands to support it and I support that view. However, it is not an international agreement. It is for individual companies to decide whether they will participate in the agreement. The core right of decent working conditions is at the head of the mandate of the International Labour Organisation, ILO. Following the recent catastrophic building collapse in Bangladesh, the ILO sent a high-level mission to the country. The mission engaged with Government, employers and workers with a view to identifying what needs to be done to prevent any such future tragedies. The outcome of the mission was agreement on the need to develop an action plan focusing on short- and medium-term steps, including an assessment of the structural safety of all active export-oriented ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh and the full implementation of a national tripartite plan of action on fire safety in the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh.

As Bangladesh's largest trading partner, the European Union is very concerned about labour conditions, including health and safety, for workers in factories across the country. On 30 April, Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the Commissioner for Trade, Karel de Gucht, released a joint statement on the issue. In light of the recent building collapse, the European Union called on the Bangladeshi authorities to act immediately to ensure factories across the country comply with international labour standards, including ILO conventions. The EU is currently considering appropriate and positive action in a wide range of areas with the involvement of the Bangladeshi authorities to incentivise the responsible management of supply chains involving developing countries. The EU said it is ready and willing to assist the Bangladeshi authorities in any way it can to meet the required international standards. At the same time, the EU will continue to encourage European and international companies to promote better health and safety standards in garment factories in Bangladesh in line with internationally recognised corporate social responsibility guidelines. It is hoped the initiatives I refer to will ensure tragedies such as the recent building collapse and the factory fire in Bangladesh will not be repeated.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Self-regulation is clearly not working in this region.

The Minister said it is up to the multiples and those who are buying the garments from Bangladesh. Has he met any of the multiples in Ireland about this? There is a common denominator in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building and the fire last night because many of the multiples in Ireland buy clothing from these factories.

The Government recently launched the Irish Aid policy. It makes a commitment to ensure the fulfilment of human rights, including the promotion of decent work. It also contains a commitment to work with Irish companies to help promote good development and human rights practices. Has the Minister discussed with the clothing brands in Ireland their obligations to accept the policies of the Bangladesh fire and building safety agreement? Against the backdrop of these appalling deaths, can we secure some agreement on actions the Government in holding the EU Presidency will take on this issue?

Regulation will be a popular move throughout Europe, as well as in Ireland which is suffering owing to the recession. It would be a popular move with most consumers who would be appalled to buy products from factories such as this, in which workers are treated like dirt. That is the issue. We have seen with other campaigns such as that regarding products tested on animals that people have responded and not bought the products involved. Similarly, we must respond to this case, in which people's lives are at risk. The Minister and I are old enough to remember the Stardust tragedy. I know many of the people who survived it and many of the families affected, as the Minister probably does. We all expressed shock and horror about it, but what people wanted at the time was regulation and a response to ensure such an event would never happen again. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh there is an increasing number of these appalling tragedies. There is corruption at the highest level in this regard. There is a responsibility on everybody, particularly people in the west who are buying these products, to respond to the needs of the people in question and positively to what the NGOs and labour organisations are seeking - the devising of some response to these tragedies.

3:40 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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Ireland is working through the international organisations of which we are a member. Two distinct approaches are being adopted. One is the instrument developed with the help of the ILO, the Bangladesh national tripartite plan of action on fire safety in the ready-made garment industry, which followed an accident in 2012. It was supported by the ILO, on foot of which the mission was sanctioned to travel to Bangladesh to see if it was being properly implemented by all those involved, including the government and industry. The European Union is putting support in place to ensure its delivery.

The Deputy referred to another agreement which was developed by non-governmental organisations and trade unions. It involves a voluntary sign-up by companies. Some companies have signed up to it but others have not. It is not an international instrument to which people can be obliged to accede. However, like the European Parliament, I urge companies to comply with high standards such as those expressed in that agreement.

We fully support what the ILO and the European Union are doing and will use our role within these organisations to promote this issue.