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Labor Watchdog Groups Limited In Their Power To Enforce Laws


In Bangladesh, rescuers continue to discover bodies of people buried beneath the rubble of a collapsed garment factory. More than 430 are now confirmed dead. As we've been reporting, the disaster has intensified pressure on clothing companies to improve workplace standards.

And as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, it's also raised questions about the ability of international watchdog organizations to protect workers in Bangladesh.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Just days after the garment factory building collapsed, senior members of the International Labour Organization flew to the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka. The ILO has been working with the Bangladeshi government over the past few years on health and safety issues for the country's more than 4,000 garment factories. Speaking on a scratchy cell phone line from Dhaka, Gilbert Houngbo, the ILO's deputy director, says that effort has now been stepped up.

GILBERT HOUNGBO: We want to make sure that, okay, let's sit down and really see what is expected from the government to move to speed up all the actions that need to be taken.

NORTHAM: The ILO says that action includes updating and strengthening its labor laws, providing technical advice on how to apply international labor standards such as decent working conditions and freedom to form a union, and working with the factory owners to ensure they comply. The ILO, a U.N. agency, is one of the key international organizations trying to implement these standards in developing nations.

But it has to be invited in by a country and it has no recourse if a government or a factory owner doesn't comply. Houngbo says all the ILO can do is try to engage with governments and factory owners.

HOUNGBO: That's why we just have to express ourself. We are not here to say okay, we have to impose this decision on you, certainly not. We are trying here to really have a very serious dialogue, a very frank discussion.

NORTHAM: In fact, there is no international organization - not the U.N., trade organizations or watchdog groups - that can do much if Bangladesh doesn't comply with labor standards. There are some trade agreements that have clauses linked to labor standards, but Jane Nelson, director of the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at Harvard's Kennedy School, says the agreements aren't binding.

Nelson, who's also with the Brookings Institution, says in reality, many countries do have good labor laws and safety codes on the books.

JANE NELSON: Often the major problem is that the governments aren't enforcing the labor laws and the safety standards and regulations that they've actually agreed to and the international agreements they've signed up to. The benign reason for that is lack of capacity and there certainly are capacity constraints, but, you know, it's fundamentally lack of political will and in some cases, from what we're currently learning, outright corruption.

NORTHAM: Charles Kernaghan, the director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, is trying to revive legislation that would prevent products made in illegal sweatshops from entering the U.S. Kernaghan says the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act was first introduced in Congress in 2007. He says it would not do much about desperate working conditions in a country like Bangladesh, but...

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: We could block these products from coming into the United States. They couldn't sell it in the United States. They couldn't export it from the United States and they couldn't import it. That legislation alone would give a level playing field for workers.

NORTHAM: Like others, Kernaghan says the one way to force change is to hit them where it hurts, in the pocketbook. Already, the European Union, Bangladesh's largest trading partner, is considering whether to change its duty-free and quota-free status, a move analysts say could be devastating for Bangladesh. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.