Trade union members beaten by thugs in Bangladesh confectionary factory

Perfetti Van Melle workers with their IUF union banner outside the factory in Gazipur where management looked on when thugs entered to attack union members with sticks

THUGS, allegedly supplied by a labour contractor at Netherlands-based global confectioner Perfetti Van Melle’s factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh, launched an organised attack on union members at work last week.

Management stood by as over 20 goons, allegedly organised by labour and services provider Rahat Corporation, entered the factory and sought out, beat and intimidated union members with bats and wooden sticks.

The union escorted 15 women workers on duty to safety while the thugs roamed the factory.

Management failed to alert police or report the attack.

The union, which won legal collective bargaining status on February 27 after five months of struggle against management attempts to undermine their rights, has been seeking to negotiate a first collective bargaining agreement and is demanding permanent status for the contract workers supplied by Rahat Corporation.

Nasrin Sultana, the Bangladesh representative of the International Union of Food (IUF), a global unions federation member, corroborated the workers’ account.

‘There were people who came from outside the factory and beat workers with sticks,’ she said.

The new union’s president Kamrul Hasan Palash said the company’s local managers had opposed the formation of the union for the factory’s 250 permanent workers.

‘I have been working here for 10 years and yet my salary is just 13,000 taka ($155) per month.

‘This is just one of the issues that we want to talk about. And it’s something that we can do now, because we have a union,’ said Palash.

‘After we formed the union, we applied to the ministry to get it registered as per the law,’ he said.

‘When the management came to know about this, they did not allow me and four others to enter the factory for five days. I was threatened.’

The union has submitted a list of demands ranging from better-quality food in the canteen to higher pay.

The IUF has denounced the vicious, organised assault in a letter to Perfetti Van Melle, demanding the company take immediate measures to ensure the safety and physical and psychological integrity of all who work at the factory and calling on it to sever ties with the contractor.

Workers at the factory in Gazipur, near the capital Dhaka, said they had earlier received threats over their plans to unionise, and have accused local managers of inaction over the attack last Tuesday.

The incident was reported to police, who claimed it had been a fight between two groups of workers in the factory.

The Dutch sweets giant, which is behind the Mentos and Alpenliebe brands, has pledged to investigate.

Perfetti Van Melle said it adhered to local labour laws, which allow for the formation of unions.

‘Securing the safety of our employees at work is our responsibility,’ Saskia Huuskes said.

‘We are investigating the incident and we have taken measures to protect the safety of all employees in our factory.

‘A workers union was established and approved by the relevant authorities by the end of February this year,’ Huuskes added.

The rights of workers in Bangladesh, a global manufacturing hub, have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, particularly since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 that killed 1,100 people.

  • On Monday 15th April the Supreme Court of Bangladesh gave another short-term extension to the Bangladesh Accord, scheduling the next hearing to determine the safety programme’s fate on 19th May 2019.

UNI Global Union and IndustriALL Global Union, two signatories of the Accord, have issued a statement calling for a resolution that protects garment workers in the country.

IndustriALL assistant general secretary Jenny Holdcroft said: ‘It is good that the Court has decided to allow more time for negotiations between the Accord and the BGMEA and the government.

‘The Accord cannot cease its operations without a resolution that protects garment workers in Bangladesh now and into the future.’

Head of UNI Commerce, Mathias Bolton said: ‘The Bangladesh Accord has saved lives and has helped make the country’s garment industry more sustainable.

‘We welcome the one month extension but the facts remain the Accord must be allowed to continue operations in the country until the government is ready to effectively take over the training, inspection, and remediation functions of the Accord. Currently, the government clearly does not have that capacity.’

A recent study using the government’s own data found a ‘shocking unreadiness’ by Bangladeshi regulators to oversee the ready-made garment industry, the country’s largest economic sector.

This is especially alarming because complaints about Bangladeshi garment factories reached an all-time high in 2018.

The 15th April hearing was the fourth of its kind since the government of Bangladesh issued a restraining order on the Accord, which was due to take effect on 30th November.

The Bangladesh Accord was signed in 2013 after the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster. It was the first agreement with a legally-binding mandate requiring fashion brands to help their contractors eliminate fire and structural safety issues.

A second agreement, the 2018 Transition Accord, went into effect when the original pact expired in May 2018 and extends the Accord’s protections until 2021.

The Accord has overseen improvements including the installation of fire doors, sprinkler systems and the upgrading of electric wiring in nearly 1,700 factories that produce clothing for some of the world’s largest brands.

  • Workers in state-owned jute mills launched a three day strike at the beginning of April in which they have blockaded roads and rail lines for four hours at a stretch, forcing the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) management to call a meeting at their HQ in Dhaka last week to discuss the workers’ demands.

They are fighting for all outstanding wages and salaries to be immediately paid, and implementation of the National Wage and Productivity Commission Award 2015.

Other demands include adequate budgetary funding for the jute sector, payment of pensions due to retired workers and insurance payments to families of deceased workers, the reinstatement of sacked workers and unionisation of temporary workers, among many other issues.

However, the angry meeting broke up without any agreement, with  Bangladesh Patkol Sramik League (the trades unions federation) general secretary Kamruzzaman Chunnu understating: ‘We think that the authorities have lack of sincerity in implementing our demands.’

During the meeting, BJMC chairman Shah Muhammad Nasim said that the corporation agreed with all the ‘logical demands’ of the workers and hoped that both the BJMC and they would jointly overcome the crisis.

But a BJMC project director brought up an alleged attack on a manager during the workers’ protests – which they contest – and threatened the union leaders present that ‘they should not think that they are the only leaders – there are others bigger than them.

‘The government has huge power, they won’t allow any anarchy,’ he said.

The meeting ended without any decision regarding the workers’ demands, only that management said that they would pay the outstanding wages ‘after getting the funding’ and would ‘consider’ the National Wage and Productivity Commission Award 2015 but only ‘after July’.

The Patkol Sramik League and all the trade union leaders will meet later this month to decide on a further course of action.