DOZENS of garment workers and labour leaders are facing unfair or apparently fabricated criminal cases in Bangladesh after wage strikes in December 2016, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Arbitrary arrests by the Bangladesh police are growing with each passing day – nine more union organisers were arrested on February 10, taking the number of known arrests to 34. ‘Targeting labour activists and intimidating workers instead of addressing their wage grievances tarnishes Bangladesh’s reputation and makes a mockery of government and industry claims that they are committed to protecting worker’s rights,’ said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh and aid donors should press the government to stop persecuting workers and labour rights activists.’
Thousands of garment workers outside Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, participated in wage strikes between December 11 and 19 last year. They came from an estimated 20 factories that supply global brands based in the Ashulia industrial area. According to information by local groups and official information, the vast majority were from factories that had no unions.
The national union federations deny they had any role in or prior knowledge about these strikes. But the Bangladesh authorities used these strikes as a justification to arrest national union federation leaders and labour activists for ‘leading’ and ‘planning’ the strikes. Targeting labour activists and intimidating workers instead of addressing their wage grievances tarnishes Bangladesh’s reputation and makes a mockery of government and industry claims that they are committed to protecting workers’ rights.
Workers say that strikes are often the only means for them to raise their grievances, in part because the government and local employers retaliate against union organisers and workers trying to organise. As a result, workers are unable to bargain collectively with employers and use formal channels for addressing grievances.
The workers coalesced behind a demand for a monthly minimum wage increase from 5,300 takas (US$67) to 15,000 ($187) or 16,000 ($200). In 2016, the Fair Labour Association found that the purchasing power of a Bangladesh factory worker’s average compensation was below the World Bank poverty line.
Both the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA) and the government rejected a wage review. The export association closed about 60 Ashulia factories for several days, effectively locking out thousands of workers and ending the strikes.
In early January 2017, about 20 global brands sourcing from Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, C&A, Next, and Primark, wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina supporting a wage review and expressing their concerns that union leaders and worker advocates were targeted.
Rights groups have information about 10 criminal complaints filed in December 2016, implicating about 150 named workers and over 1,600 ‘unknown’ people for crimes, including property destruction at the factories, during the strikes. Union leaders and organisers have also now been questioned or arrested in relation to older cases.
These groups are aware of 34 people who were arrested, most of them union leaders. In addition, a journalist from the ETV, a local news channel, was arrested for reporting about the strikes. A news report from early January suggests the numbers are higher, stating the police had arrested at least 44 people and were identifying another 159 suspects. The police have not provided a full list of all those arrested and where they are being held.
Based on interviews with rights groups, lawyers, and workers, and police records, Human Rights Watch found the circumstances of many of the arrests following the Ashulia strikes point to politically motivated abuse of police powers to retaliate against labour organisers rather than credible allegations of crimes.
Some of the police abuse tactics in the aftermath of the Ashulia strikes mirror those previously used by authorities in other related and unrelated human rights matters. These include:
• Arrests based on vague or repealed offences from the draconian Special Powers Act, 1974;
• The use of criminal complaints against large numbers of ‘unknown’ people allowing the police to threaten virtually anyone with arrest, to repeatedly re-arrest detainees even though they are not the named accused in the cases, and to thwart bail;
• The misuse of powers of ‘arrest without warrant’ in violation of Bangladesh High Court directives, effectively making pretrial detention itself a form of punishment;
• Violations of procedural safeguards aimed at counteracting forced confessions through torture, or cruel, inhuman, and other degrading treatment;
• Threats by police to kill two detainees and claim they were killed in ‘crossfire’ in a shootout with police, and a death threat to an official from the Bangladesh Independent Garments Union Federation;
• Harassment and intimidation of labour activists and workers in the name of ‘investigations’;
• The arrest of a journalist under the vague section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2015.
The Bangladesh authorities should stop pressing these criminal cases and hold any police officers who used forced disappearances, torture, death threats, and other abusive police practices after the Ashulia strikes accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
According to a news report, the National Revenue Board has also written to banks requesting all account-related information dating from July 1, 2009 for six union leaders and some of their spouses.
‘The Bangladeshi authorities seem determined to intimidate labour leaders and workers with the constant threat of arbitrary arrests to fill up the “unknown” tally of alleged troublemakers,’ Robertson said. A familiar pattern of criminal cases being used against rights activists is unfolding after the Ashulia strikes.’
Based on information from workers, local labour rights groups, and newspaper reports, some Ashulia factories have also retaliated against an estimated 1,500 workers by indiscriminately firing or suspending them. Donors and brands sourcing from Bangladesh have the responsibility to respect and protect workers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said.
They should call for an end to all harassment of labour leaders, workers, and journalists, including by ending the false criminal cases. Brands sourcing from Bangladesh should make binding agreements with local and global unions to protect freedom of association, modelled on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an enforceable agreement between workers and brands with a dispute resolution mechanism.
Voluntary commitments in brands’ codes of conduct are ineffective to counter factory retaliation against unions. In the interim, brands should ensure their suppliers develop corrective action plans with worker representatives, including the option of reinstating fired workers and negotiating collective bargaining agreements to resolve wage disputes.
The Bangladesh garment industry employs about four million workers and generates exports worth about US$25 billion. But the country’s dismal labour rights record is marked by persistent abuses including a lack of periodic wage reviews, wage theft, management thwarting unionisation in factories, and poor fire and building safety.
The 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured another 2,000, forced the Bangladesh government, global brands, and factories to take steps to address fire and building safety, leading to some improvements.
In 2016, the Fair Labour Association found that for the factories it assessed in Bangladesh, the purchasing power of average compensation fell below the World Bank poverty line compared with other big apparel producers like China and Vietnam, where average compensation is 2.5 times the poverty line.
One union federation leader said that ‘participation committees’ – employer-worker committees under the Bangladesh Labour Act – had begun to subtly replace factory unions. A few workers from various Ashulia factories said their factory managers did not allow ‘unions’ but allowed workers to vote for representatives to these committees. The Solidarity Centre told Human Rights Watch that participation committees either exist only on paper or are dominated by employers and do not represent worker interests.
A union office holder from a factory said: ‘Our factory union got the registration three months ago. ‘When the owner became aware of this, he terminated 74 workers including the union president … Now I got dismissed along with 150 others, though I had no role in the recent protest.’
In another case, workers had attempted to form a union in their factory three times, only to face factory retaliation.