May 23, 2012— Bangladesh’s labor code addresses pay, working hours, and on-the-job conditions. However, in the shrimp-processing industry, the code is not being adequately enforced, according to the Solidarity Center’s new report, "The Plight of Shrimp-Processing Workers of Southwestern Bangladesh." Indeed, Bangladeshi shrimp-processing workers—the majority of whom are women—still face inadequate health and safety protections at work and receive less than the minimum wage, among other violations of their rights.
||Click on image to download the Solidarity Center's new report on shrimp-processing workers in Bangladesh.
The report, based on in-depth interviews with workers on conditions in shrimp-processing plants in southwestern Bangladesh, was released by the Solidarity Center at a public launch on May 16. The event, held at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC, was led by panelists Tim Ryan, Asia regional program director, Solidarity Center; Anindita Ghosh, program officer, Solidarity Center Bangladesh; and Sabina Dewan, director of globalization and international employment, Center for American Progress.
Ghosh—who interviewed many workers herself—said that conditions have not improved for Bangladeshi workers in shrimp-processing factories since the Solidarity Center’s 2008 report "The True Cost of Shrimp" documented conditions for workers in the shrimp industry in Bangladesh and Thailand. If anything, she said, conditions in Bangladesh have worsened. A particularly concerning trend is a continued shift from full-time to contract work arrangements. “This is a problem,” Ghosh explained, “because contract workers work like permanent workers but have no legal protections.”
Ghosh provided many specific examples where workers in shrimp-processing plants in southwestern Bangladesh attempted to organize or join a union and were then terminated by plant owners. “Now,” she said, “the workers are afraid to talk to our organizers and to talk about organizing.”
The processing of shrimp and fish for the export market is very important to Bangladesh’s economy and, by extension, to the status of its workers, Ghosh said. She added that as the industry improves and better meets international standards so too Bangladesh will develop.
Ryan said the goal of the new report is to support workers and help improve the work environment by ensuring that Bangladeshi shrimp-processing companies and the supply chains that source from them adhere to the country’s labor code. “This sector has had a free ride in Bangladesh for decades while everyone was focused on the garment sector,” he said.
During a question and answer session, an official from the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) who had traveled recently to Bangladesh shared his impression that working conditions in all sectors have deteriorated rather than improved. He said he is personally “frustrated” and that the U.S. government remains committed to using its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program to encourage enforcement of core labor standards in Bangladesh.
Under the GSP program, beneficiary countries can gain preferential duty-free entry to the U.S. market. The 2012 GSP Guidebook specifies that a GSP beneficiary “must have taken or is taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights, including the right of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, freedom from compulsory labor, a minimum age for the employment of children, and acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work and occupational safety and health.”
Dewan, of the Center for American Progress, stated that conditions in the shrimp-processing industry in Bangladesh—including poor wages and conditions, a shift to contract work, and deteriorating labor standards—are mirrored in many sectors and many countries.
In spite of the challenges, she said, “this is a unique post-economic crisis moment.” Following years of jobless growth, both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have come to the realization that economic growth is not sufficient to achieve development goals and, with them, economic, political, and social stability. Dewan recommended that human and worker rights groups present a counterweight argument to austerity economics. “Good jobs are a driver of economic growth rather than a consequence,” she said.