taz: Mr Schmid, over 1,000 workers died in April when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed. Clothing destined for Germany was also produced in this factory. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is implementing development projects there to prevent such accidents. According to criticism by the Clean Clothes Campaign, GIZ is promoting only the interests of businesses, not those of workers. Is that true?
Magnus Schmid: No. To give you an example: in conjunction with four local organisations that represent workers, we have established 43 women's cafés, where workers learn about their rights under labour law. Lawyers provide legal counselling. Furthermore, we train the women to negotiate with managers of the firms.
But you also advise the firms?
Among other activities, GIZ conducts evening courses for middle management and supervisors in factories. Topics covered include improving fire safety, setting up a kind of plant fire brigade, and keeping the emergency escape routes free. Furthermore, when the new Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was drawn up after the collapse of the garment factory building, the Bangladesh Ministry of Labour and Employment asked GIZ to help train 200 additional factory inspectors. The Ministry currently has only 19 inspectors, who are supposed to visit thousands of garment factories – which of course doesn’t work out.
Your critics argue that the deficiencies in the firms can only be eradicated if labour unions are allowed to carry out independent inspections. Is GIZ working to make this possible?
We are advisors and cannot engage in political activity. So we train trainers, who initiate and maintain a dialogue between management and workers in the companies. For example, we had positive experience with this in two Chinese factories in the export promotion zones of Dhaka where there had been fierce worker protests and production equipment was destroyed. Two trainers who had been trained by GIZ were involved in the mediation between company management and workers. One result, among others: several managers were fired, but no protesting workers were.
Can you point to improvements that you have achieved for workers?
We find common problems in many firms: the drinking water is contaminated, the toilets are dirty, the stairwells are often misused as storage space, so that workers have difficulty getting out of the building, wages are not paid correctly. The trainers we train manage to gradually eliminate these problems. GIZ also checks on the results of this work. We find, for example, that fire extinguishers have actually been installed, that doors now open to the outside instead of to the inside – which makes it easier to evacuate in case of fire. And that bars have been removed from the windows.
GIZ also checks on the results of this work. We find, for example, that fire extinguishers have actually been installed, that doors now open to the outside instead of to the inside – which makes it easier to evacuate in case of fire. And that bars have been removed from the windows.
Companies like Lidl and KIK are criticised because the workers in local factories are paid a salary of only EUR 30 a month. Is GIZ pushing for higher wages?
Many companies in Southeast Asia pay only the minimum wage set by the government. Given an inflation rate of up to 10% a year in Bangladesh, this hardly covers living costs. What we can do is continually place this issue on the agenda in discussions with the government, industry associations, and labour unions. Recently we also presented positive examples of firms that pay more.
Hannes Koch conducted the interview, which first appeared in the taz on 28 June 2013.