GLOBAL union IndustriALL is calling for an immediate end to the persecution of garment workers, trade union leaders and worker activists in Bangladesh in light of a sinister crackdown by government authorities.
In an alarming step backwards for the garment industry in Bangladesh, police have detained at least 11 union leaders and workers’ rights advocates over the past two weeks under the Special Powers Act 1974, an emergency introduced in wartime.
The eleven detained include seven members of three IndustriALL trade union affiliates in Bangladesh – the BGIWF, SBGWF and BIGUF. Meanwhile, more than 1,600 workers have been suspended and police have filed cases against 600 workers and trade union leaders.
The clampdown by authorities follows strikes in the Ashulia district of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on 12 December by workers demanding an increase in the minimum wage from US$68 to US$190 per month. Factory owners have taken a strong stand not to increase wages – even though they are some of the lowest in the world. At the same time, the cost of housing, basic commodities and Medicare is spiralling.
In retaliation for the strikes, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) suspended production at 59 factories and owners arbitrarily suspended well over 1,600 workers.
Two factories affected by the strikes, Windy Apparels Ltd and Fountain Garments Ltd have filed criminal complaints against 239 workers, while the Hemeem Group is reported to be filing complaints against as many as 1,000 workers.
IndustriALL sources say many garment workers are now too scared to go back to work. Some workers have even returned to the countryside to escape police persecution. Most of the local offices of IndustriALL affiliates in Ashulia have shut down or been vandalized.
IndustriALL’s Council of Trade Unions in Bangladesh has called for the immediate release of all those in custody and that all police cases against workers and trade union leaders are dropped. The Council has also requested that the International Labour Organization broker a meeting with the BGMEA.
IndustriALL joined other unions and campaigning groups in writing a joint letter to brands sourcing from factories in Bangladesh, urging them to contact the government of Bangladesh to release the detained labour leaders, drop charges and cease harassment of trade union leaders and workers’ rights activists.
Bangladesh has a dire history of targeting independent trade unions and worker activists, including beatings, torture and death threats. In 2012, activist Aminul Islam was found brutally murdered. Human Rights Watch and other observers strongly suspect the involvement of Bangladesh security forces in his death.
IndustriALL general secretary, Valter Sanches, 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 cannot treat its workers humanely.’
Tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh went on strike in December, the first major unrest to hit the world’s second biggest garment manufacturer since a massive, deadly accident in 2013 spurred labour reforms and sparked an ethical fashion revolution around the world.
Labour activists say some workers fear for their safety or jobs because of the strikes.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Exporters Association President Siddiqur Rahman said incremental steps are being taken to address concerns. He discouraged ‘innocent workers’ from ‘conspiring to create chaos in the country’.
In the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory complex collapse that killed at least 1,130 people, big Western retailers like H&M and Walmart formed agreements to improve factory conditions and worker safety in Bangladesh. The incident also spurred a socially conscious movement for more transparent supply chains and working conditions.
But while workers in Bangladesh say some structural improvements have been made, and buildings are safer, they say repression of labour rights continues. And around the world, poverty-level wages, long hours, unsafe conditions, physical and verbal abuse in garment factories are rampant.
According to the DC-based Worker Rights Consortium, labour costs make up a small fraction of big retailers’ expenses, yet concrete changes industry-wide in wages and working conditions have been slow within the $2.4 trillion global fashion industry. Meanwhile the Moulvibazar Transport Workers’ Union called off their strike last Saturday following a tripartite meeting between the district administrations, leaders of the union and traders association.
Transport workers had enforced an indefinite strike earlier in the day protesting against an attack on locals by Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) members. Local sources said a member of Sreemangal sector headquarter of BGB locked in an altercation with a local transport worker on Thursday over parking of a vehicle at Sreemangal town and assaulted the transport worker and immediately left the place.
At about 5.30pm, a large number of border guards rushed to the spot and started assaulting people in the area. The workers enforced the strike from 6:00am Saturday, demanding punishment of those responsible for the attack, said Sanjib Das, president of the union.
• In Cambodia, garment workers’ unions are also under attack. More than 100 Sinosky Hejun Garment Co Ltd workers went on strike for four hours yesterday to request that the company allow their leader to come back to work after he was fired last month for creating a union.
Mom Seak, president of the Khmer Union Federation of Workers Spirit, said the workers were demanding that Kim Chetra be allowed to return to work since he was fired unjustly. ”The company fired their leader, who had just created a union at the factory,’ he said, adding that the union had been organised to help workers experiencing problems. It looks like the company discriminates against unions,’ he added.
The Chinese-owned garment factory, located in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district, produces clothing such as pants, shirts, shorts and tank-tops. Srey Na, one of the 141 workers employed at the company, said workers were hoping their union leader would return to work. ‘He is very active in helping workers,’ she said. ‘Workers chose him to be the union leader.’ Na added that Chetra also needed a job to support his family.