FOUR years after the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 textile workers were killed when the garment factory they were working in collapsed, a brutal crackdown on garment trade union activists is underway.
Bangladeshi security forces have raided the houses of trade union leaders and volunteers, and at least 11 garment union leaders and activists have been detained. Trade union offices in Ashulia, the garment-producing hub of the capital Dhaka, have been raided, vandalised, and forcibly shut down, with membership documents burned and furniture removed.
In addition, after garment workers demanded an increase in wages in December 2016, more than 1,600 of them have been fired and police have filed cases against 600 workers and their trade union leaders.
A recent report, authored by Uni Global Union, IndustriALL Global Union, and the International Trade Union Confederation, has also concluded that the Bangladesh government has failed to comply with the Sustainability Compact – an agreement between Bangladesh and the European Union (EU), Canada, and the United States, as well as trades unions and other organisations.
The agreement was signed in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse and called for improvements to workplace safety, backed up by unions and collective agreements. But ever since the Compact was signed, there have been over 100 cases of anti-union reprisals in factories, and delays by the government to certify additional bargaining units.
The government of Bangladesh must honour its labour and safety promises by immediately releasing the detained union leaders and activists, and complying with the terms of the Sustainability Compact as quickly as possible.
More than 20 international brands have protested to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over the detention of trade union leaders in the garment industry. The companies, including H&M, Next and Primark, have emphasised that a rise in the cost of living has contributed to the garment workers’ discontent and urge the government to set up a wages board for the sector.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, the Amsterdam-based campaign for clothing workers’ conditions worldwide, and 26 labour rights groups had asked companies sourcing goods from Bangladesh to lobby for the union leaders’ release. The IndustriALL Global Union added its voice by calling for a quick end to persecution.
The swell of protest follows the arrest of at least eleven union leaders and workers’ rights activists in a swoop by government authorities after the sacking of the 1,600 workers and the filing of the cases against the 600. Workers in a number of Dhaka factories had gone on strike demanding a monthly minimum wage increase from $68 to $190 (£66 to £156).
Most of the local offices of IndustriALL affiliates were also closed or vandalised, while many workers were said to be too scared to return to work and some fled to the countryside to escape the police. In more retaliatory action the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association stopped production at 59 of the factories where workers were suspended.
Two of the factory owners have filed criminal complaints against 239 workers and a third is reported to be taking similar action against up to 1,000. IndustriALL reported at the weekend that it is now in talks with the Bangladesh government and with the retailers which buy goods from the factories, as well as with the EU.
‘This is a tense time,’ said Jenny Holdcroft, IndustriALL’s assistant general secretary.
‘There are even terrorist threats to the garment industry.’ IndustriALL’s council for Bangladesh, which has demanded the release of those in custody and the dropping of police cases against workers and union leaders, has asked the International Labour Organisation to broker a meeting of employees’ representatives and the factory owners’ group.
The threat from a prolonged dispute was outlined by IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches, who said: ‘The crackdown on trade unionists and workers in the Bangladesh garment industry cannot continue.
‘IndustriALL demands that the government immediately release the detained trade union leaders and activists, and drops the criminal cases against hundreds of garment workers. Government repression will not silence them or us.
‘Garment workers have a fundamental right to organise and must be paid a living wage. The government risks losing its precious garment industry if it cannot treat its workers humanely.’
Clothing factories are responsible for 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports and the government and factory owners consider any interuption to their output to b a threat to the entire economy. Western retailers would be hit heavily too.
They would be hard pressed to find sufficient cheap labour replacement suppliers in other countries such as Pakistan and China, which are already working flat out to meet global demand.
The Bangladesh garment industry is the world’s second largest producer of textile and clothing, employing 4.5 million workers of which 80 per cent are women. The arrest of at least 11 trade union leaders and worker activists is an alarming step backwards for worker rights and democracy in the country. At the same time, security forces have raided union leaders’ and supporters’ homes, forcing many into hiding in fear of their safety.
Despite the crackdown, Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina claimed to business leaders and the international community that there are harmonious industrial relations in the readymade garment (RMG) industry in the country. She claimed Bangladesh is ‘highly committed to ensuring compliance with regard to the RMG industry.’
Following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse and its killing of more than 1,100 garment workers, the Bangladesh Accord was signed. This was a legally-binding agreement signed by more than 200 global brands, to inspect 1,600 garment factories for fire and safety hazards. More than 74% of identified safety issues in the 1,600 factories have been reported or verified as fixed, it is claimed.
• In India a strike by the Freight Transport Owners-Workers Union Council began early on Monday in protest against a campaign of extortion, harassment and violence suffered by its members.
The strikers have presented a list of 12 other demands including lifting a ban on carrying side angles, bumpers and hooks on trucks and covered vans, said Union Council Convener Abdul Gaffar Biswas. The strike will continue until the demands are met, he said.
‘Our other demands include the issuing of a press note on overloading of freight transport. We also want an end to extortion and law-breaking at ferry ports, stopping of harassment under the guise of checking documents and ending the culture of bribery.’
Biswas also demanded a reduction in bridge toll rates, the removal of unnecessary speed breakers, the issuing of driving licences by training programmes, a reduction in the price of fuel oil and an end to the violence against drivers at India’s Petrapole land port.
Union members in 21 districts, including Khulna, Greater Faridpur and Barisal are participating in the strike, said Biswas.