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Bangladesh Cabinet OK’s expanded benefits for workers

NEW DELHI — Bangladesh’s Cabinet approved changes to the nation’s labor laws Monday that officials say will expand benefits for garment workers and make it easier to form trade unions. The steps came a day after the government promised to push for higher pay in an export clothing industry with the lowest wages in the world.

The new initiatives are partly in response to outrage over conditions in the country’s garment sector after the April 24 collapse of a garment factory building, Rana Plaza, in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, the nation’s capital. By Monday afternoon, at least 1,127 people were confirmed to have died in the Rana Plaza collapse, a number that could still rise, in what is now considered the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry.

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A top adviser to Bangladesh’s prime minister, Gowher Rizvi, said the changes approved by the Cabinet — which must still be approved by the country’s Parliament — are part of a broader government effort to come into compliance with international labor standards and improve conditions for workers in an industry that is critical to the nation’s economy.

“Worker safety and worker welfare have now been brought into the forefront,” Rizvi said in a telephone interview. He said that discussions on these changes predated the Rana Plaza collapse even as he agreed that the disaster had intensified the pressure for reforms.

“This is the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said of the garment industry’s importance to Bangladesh. “Don’t kill it. We have to strengthen it. We have to nurture it. Nurturing it means fair treatment of the workers.”

Bangladesh is now the world’s second-leading garment exporter, trailing only China, and has become a popular manufacturer for top global brands by delivering lower costs, largely because of rock-bottom wages. Minimum wage in the garment industry is $37 a month. Labor unions are largely absent in garment factories, partly because of legal restrictions on organizing. In some cases, workers trying to organize unions have faced dismissals from factory bosses, as well as intimidation and harassment from local officials.

Labor Secretary Mikail Shipar said Monday’s changes included eliminating a central restriction on union organizing and improving benefits for workers. Under the current rules, organizers must present the government with a list of names showing that at least 30 percent of workers in a factory want a union. But that list is then turned over to a factory’s owner to verify the authenticity of the names — a step that some owners have used to engage in union busting by firing or harassing workers on the list.

Now, Shipar said the list would no longer be turned over to factory owners.

“This is a major barrier in getting registration of a trade union in a factory,” he said. “Through the proposed amendment of the labor law, we removed this barrier.”

Rizvi said the move by the Cabinet is part of a broader effort to bring Bangladesh into compliance with minimum labor standards set by the International Labor Organization.

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