It was past midnight. Four days into my job as the new Director of the ILO Country Office in Bangladesh. Ten days after the Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed more than 1,100 garment factory workers.
A high level mission from ILO headquarters had been in the country for several days and we had been in discussions since morning, shuttling between unions, employers and government and were close to agreement on the joint statement we would issue the next day.
The country was still in shock at the enormity of the tragedy but it was only at that point, in the early hours, after meeting with ambassadors from a number of countries, that I realised that this was not just about Bangladesh.
It was not about an accident in one building. It was about an issue that had severe implications for many countries, particularly Europe and the United States. It was about global governance, global rules and regulations.
These garment workers are working for millions of consumers and hundreds of global employers. We are all affected and we all need change.
That change has started to happen – with the ILO playing a pivotal role in coordinating the various initiatives – both national and global – which have sprung out of this tragedy.
Our technical specialists are assisting government, employers and workers on safety and health, labour standards, labour inspections and training.
We’re also launching a major US$24m Ready-Made Garment Industry Programme, which aims to improve working conditions in the industry.
Nearly 200 specialist engineers have been trained, in partnership with the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, to carry out buildings’ inspections. They’ll be starting work soon.
A major challenge, though, has been managing expectations.
Everyone, of course, wants to see tangible changes on the ground fast. It’s easy to say that progress has been slow. The fire in October at a garment factory north-west of Dhaka shows there’s still a long way to go.
But to make sure that another Rana Plaza doesn’t happen, we need to put in place long term measures. That’s what’s been happening with the passing of new labour law amendments, the building assessments training, the joint discussions on common standards, the work with the global brands and buyers.
The rehabilitation of those workers affected by the building collapse is also a long term task. They need time – and help – to go through the process of recovery.
My first six months as head of the ILO Dhaka office have been deeply coloured by this tragedy. It’s been a challenge. It’s been demanding. Yet, from the day of the building collapse until now, it has also been a great opportunity to affect change.
When I see the commitment of so many organizations, companies, agencies and governments at national and international level, it gives me confidence that we can make real improvements in Bangladesh’s garment sector. It gives me strength. That’s why I don’t feel tired.