(First published in English 9 th september 2008)
By Pia A. Gaarder
In the middle of April 2008 the documentary “A Tower of Promises” revealed child labour and dangerous working conditions at Telenor’s suppliers of antenna towers in Bangladesh. Telenor has done a complete turnaround in the case of Mizan Hatim and cancelled the ban on participating in future competitive tendering for supplying antenna towers to Grameenphone.
Mizan Hatim Engineering has confirmed the attitude of Telenor and its subsidiary Grameenphone and is relieved at the development: “We are very happy about Telenor/Grameenphone’s decision to let us participate in new competitive tendering,” Director Ali Asgar wrote in an e-mail to Norwatch.
Norwatch has for a long time directed attention to why Telenor and Grameenphone excluded one of the five suppliers in the wake of the scandal about the dangerous working conditions at Telenor’s and Ericsson’s producers of antenna towers in Bangladesh.
Mizan Hatim risked going bankrupt. They had worked for Grameenphone for 11 years and lost their best customer. Seventy percentage of their production went to Grameenphone. As a direct result of Telenor’s cleanup after the scandal, 500 workers and their families could have been out of work, with no income.
“Completely irresponsible and incomprehensible,” said Tom Heinemann, the Danish journalist who made the documentary “A Tower of Promises”, when Norwatch asked him for a comment on the exclusion of Mizan Hatim.
But now Telenor and Grameenphone have definitely changed completely. “On the part of Grameenphone there is no prestige in avoiding Mizan Hatim. Provided that words follow action, they are welcome to join in the competition for contracts in the future. The best thing for them to do would therefore be to start by showing their willingness to implement improvements,” Pål Kvalheim, Telenor’s public relations officer, wrote in an e-mail in answer to Norwatch’s many queries about this case.
“Does this imply in practice that Mizan Hatim can participate in competitive bidding already now?”, Norwatch asked Kvalheim on the telephone.
“Yes. Mizan Hatim can also participate now. But I must emphasise that the company must show willingness to implement the changes. The signals we have received from them are positive, but they will not receive a contract if we, for example, are not sure that no children work there,” Kvalheim responded.
“But that is a requirement that applies equally to the four other suppliers and not just to Mizan Hatim?”
“That is correct. It applies to all five. None of them will receive contracts unless we see concrete changes and receive guarantees with regard to child labour,” Kvalheim said.
Norwatch wrote to Telenor’s top executives in June, with a copy to Norway’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, and requested further explanation of why Hizan Matin is excluded as a supplier.
Norwatch is, in fact, in possession of documentation showing that Mizan Hatim, in a letter to Grameenphone dated 25 May, deeply regretted what they themselves believe are linguistic misunderstandings in their first letter answering the “Show-Cause” request. In this formal request Grameenphone asked all their suppliers to explain the conditions uncovered in the documentary “A Tower of Promises” and to promise that they all followed Bangladeshi laws. Mizan Hatim did not provide a satisfactory answer.
In their new “Show-Cause” answer the management of Mizan Hatim guaranteed, among other things, that they will ban child labour and that they are working on the security at the factory. Mizan Hatim’s leaders have told Norwatch that they have already introduced improved security measures at the factory after Tom Heinemann made the film 7 months ago. They sent some photos that showed, among other things, that the galvanisation process is about to be automated and that the old galvanisation room is being dismantled. In addition, they showed security courses held in 2007 together with Grameenphone and a course held on 13 May.
Journalist Tom Heinemann, who produced the documentary “A Tower of Promises”, has looked at the pictures for Norwatch. He recognises the area and says that Mizan Hatim has introduced improvements.
On the basis of this information Norwatch wished to know how Telenor could continue saying that just Mizan Hatim does not show itself willing to improve conditions.
The Norwegian Broadcasting System’s radio programme “Søndagsavisa” took up this case in June, gathering together Jon Fredrik Baksaas, Telenor’s chief executive; Dag Terje Andersen, Minister of Trade and Industry; and Tom Heinemann, the journalist behind the revelations, to discuss, among other things, Mizan Hatim’s fate.