AS MANY as 11,000 Bangladesh garment workers were sacked in the wake of the pay strikes they waged in December and January, while many have also been physically threatened, attacked, arrested on trumped-up charges and blacklisted.
A shocking report published by the United States trade union body the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Centre reveals that these employer-directed assaults often take the form of gender-based violence at work.
In testimony provided to the Solidarity Centre by garment workers and union leaders, a pattern emerges in which women seeking to form unions or engage in collective action are especially targeted with actions to degrade, demean and intimidate them, and some have suffered physical attacks and rape.
‘As we try to form unions, management is hostile against us,’ says one garment worker. (Neither workers nor factories will be identified to protect workers against retaliation.) ‘They threaten me that, what if someone stops me in the road, what can I do as a woman?’
Children Injured in Police Attack on Factory
At one factory where workers walked out on January 7 to demand higher wages, police charged them and threw tear gas into the factory, injuring between 13 and 14 children in the ground floor day care.
Managers later ‘sent out a list of all the mothers with babies and terminated them,’ says one worker at the factory. ‘They did this so that they could close down the day care.’
On the same day, at another garment factory where workers say managers had harassed them ever since they submitted a union registration application in November, police beat workers with rods and sticks and ‘took away the scarves of women’, threatening to rape them, according to a worker’s eyewitness account.
While Bangladesh employers stepped up attacks directed at women workers during the recent walkouts, they have long used gender-based violence at work as a tactic to intimidate women active in union organising.
In November, hired criminals associated with management and local government officials attacked and raped a woman organiser at a factory in the midst of a campaign to form a union.
Crackdown Amplifies Ongoing Assaults on Worker Rights
The harassment, assaults and arrests of garment workers this year amplifies an increasingly repressive environment for worker organising that in recent years has included threatening home visits, kidnappings and mass termination.
In one recent example, workers at a garment factory saw their daily production quota increased to 400 pieces a day, up from 250 pieces after they filed with the government for union registration.
Workers there say supervisors locked union committee members in bathrooms and hired local criminals to pursue them in the streets.
Even as employers exploit workers’ wage protests as a pretext for infringing on the rights of workers to organise and bargain collectively, government resistance to workers seeking to register unions further represses workers’ efforts to form unions and collectively bargain better wages and working conditions.
Following the deaths of more than 1,200 garment workers in the 2012 fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, workers vigorously organised to form unions and negotiate contracts, as the Bangladesh government and ready-made garment (RMG) employers responded to international pressure to improve safety and wages.
But now Bangladesh, which in 2018 the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) ranked as among the world’s 10 worst countries for workers’ rights, is on the verge of expelling the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
Established after the Rana Plaza disaster, the legally binding agreement between hundreds of primarily European retail brands and unions conducted safety inspections at more than 1,000 factories and educated workers on safety and other workplace rights.
And without the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively for internationally recognised rights, Bangladesh garment workers are unable to collectively negotiate safer, healthier workplaces.
‘We are poor. Just because we formed a union, we have been the victims,’ says one worker at a factory where 200 workers were fired after they sought to register a union with the government.
The worker says when management learned of their efforts to form a union, women were threatened with rape and men threatened with guns and knives.
‘Our photos and fingerprints have been sent to all the factories, so we are not able to find jobs anywhere else. Blacklists are hanging in front of the factories,’ she said.
- The economy of Bangladesh is ‘booming’ due to massive profits the ready-made garment (RMG) industry is making.
According to the latest figures from the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), the RMG sector contributed USD 30.61 billion, or 83.49 per cent, to Bangladesh’s total exports of USD 36.66 billion, during the last fiscal year of 2017-18.
And during July-November of the current fiscal year 2018-19, the growth stood at 20 per cent.
According to a survey titled ‘Ongoing Upgradation in RMG Enterprise: Preliminary Results from a Survey’ conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), there are 3,596 active RMG factories in Bangladesh with 3.5 million workers, of which 60.8% are female and 39.2% are male.
This booming economy is based on entrenched exploitation and the widespread payment of poor wages.
Oxfam, together with the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies and the Institute for Workers and Trade Unions in Vietnam, has interviewed more than 470 workers across Bangladesh and Vietnam for this study.
All of them were part of Australian clothing supply chains at the time of interview, employed in garment factories that supply at least one iconic Australian clothing brand.
This report has recently come out with the title ‘Made in Poverty: The true price of fashion’.
The investigation also included more than 130 interviews with factory owners, managers, union leaders and focus groups to present a clear picture of the way the fashion industry works in Australian garment supply chains.
The result is the first full picture of the lives of the people who work to bring fashion to Australian shelves, from Bangladesh and Vietnam.
From amongst the interviewed workers, the report found some frustrating evidence.
They are paid well below a living wage and they also struggle to feed themselves and their families.
In consequence, they cannot afford their healthcare needs nor education of their children.
Workers told stories of having to leave school early or getting their children out of school in order to send them to work in the garment sector to bring in more money.
This investigation reveals that the problems created by poverty wages in the garment industry are not isolated incidents.
Among the many disturbing results, the research has revealed that nine out of ten workers interviewed in Bangladesh cannot afford enough food for themselves and their families, forcing them to regularly skip meals and eat inadequately, or go into debt.
72% of workers interviewed in Bangladesh factories supplying to major brands in Australia cannot afford medical treatment when they get sick or injured.
76% of workers interviewed in Bangladesh factories supplying major brands in Australia have no running water inside their home.
In Bangladesh, one in three workers interviewed are separated from their children, with nearly 80% of those cases due to a lack of adequate income.