‘A Union Is the Road to Worker Rights’

‘A Union Is the Road to Worker Rights’

As we approach April 24, the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,130 garment workers and severely injured thousands more, the Solidarity Center is posting first-person stories of three garment worker union organizers who were arrested in December on baseless and dangerous charges, following wage strikes in the Ashulia garment district in December.

Mohammad Ronju, a long-time organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) that has helped thousands of workers in 36 factories form unions, was one of the more than 35 people arrested in the December crackdown. On December 27, police entered the BIGUF office in Gazipur, arrested Ronju and later charged him in a January 2015 political opposition explosive substances case, in which he had no involvement. The case carries a sentence of three to twenty years in prison.

 After being denied bail repeatedly, Ronju was eventually granted bail and was released on February 16, 2017 after spending over 50 days in jail. The case is still pending.

Bangladesh, garment workers, Solidarity Center, Rana Plaza, human rights

Ronju, targeted for helping garment workers form unions, faces up to 20 years in prison.

“I grew up in Dinajpur (northern Bangladesh) and then moved to Dhaka to live with my aunt when I was 8 years old. As I got a little older, I knew I needed to do something to earn money so I got a job in a garment factory.

“At the age of 12 or 13 years old, I started working in a factory in Dhaka as a helper in the finishing section making 600 taka a month ($7.40).

“In 2006, I began working in a different factory in Gazipur where some of my co-workers first introduced me to BIGUF when there was a problem with unpaid wages. About 25 of us went to the federation office, and they worked with us to resolve the problem.

“Sometime later in 2011, when I worked in another factory, I tried to organize a union but I was fired. Another worker and I led the effort to sign up workers for the union and submitted an  application for registration to the government. I was terminated for union activity but BIGUF fought to get me reinstated in the factory. However, management later brought armed men into the factory to force me to leave my job and move from the area for good. They also went to my home and threatened my family.

“I left that factory and became a union organizer with BIGUF. I’m doing this because I was an abused worker and I want to do something for other workers. A union is the road to worker rights.”

With Union, Rana Plaza Disaster Would Not Have Happened

Since Rana Plaza, workers are now able to formally have their unions registered (by the government; a legal requirement) where they were not able to before. Workers are now more familiar about what trade unions are and what they do. Workers are also more aware of their safety. If there was a union at Rana Plaza, (the collapse) may not have happened. Union leaders could have talked with the owners about the problems there, and maybe so many workers would not have lost their lives. Maybe the leaders would have been harassed by the management, but so many workers would not have died.”

No Food, No Bed in Prison

“On December 27, I was at our BIGUF office in Gazipur when several police entered. They began reading a list of names of people that they were looking for and read my name. They arrested me and took me away in their car. I asked them what was my (reason for being arrested). They told me that there was no case against me but that they had received instructions to arrest me, so that is what they did.

“They brought me to a police station. I didn’t want to get in touch with my family because I didn’t want to worry them. Two days passed and I didn’t know what was going on. In lock-up we weren’t allowed anything—no shoes, no bed. I slept on the floor. The police didn’t feed me but some of the other prisoners shared their food. Eventually, they transferred me to the main jail where one of the officers at the gate used bad language with me.

“I was in jail for one month and 19 days. The first week in jail was really tense. I knew BIGUF would help me but I have a family and wasn’t sure how they would handle the situation. I also had communication with lots of factory workers and wasn’t sure what would happen to them. But after I was able to establish communication with everyone outside, I felt lighter.”

‘Police Instructed by Higher Authorities to Arrest Us’

Asad and Arif (two other BIGUF organizers arrested in Gazipur several days before Ronju) were also with me in jail. Asad and I slept in the same place, and Arif slept in a different place. Every morning we had to wake up at 5 a.m. and kneel on the ground so that the guards could count the prisoners. This would happen several times a day. The authorities would provide little and very low-quality food. No one could eat the vegetables and the small amount of rice provided was full of insects. But BIGUF arranged other, better quality food and items like blankets and plates to help us inside the jail.

“The false charges against me are about a political opposition case [and explosives?]. They put me in this case just to harass us (BIGUF). There is nothing there. The police were instructed by higher authorities to arrest us. BIGUF really works for the workers and that is why we were targeted.

“I have a wife and an 11-year-old son. I have received some pressure from my family, but I cannot leave my organization. This work is in my blood. We have not made any mistakes but we are harassed. We hope for the case to be withdrawn so we can again work more openly with the workers again.

“Although I’m on bail, because I have a case pending against me I still have to appear in court one day a month. The case is such that I cannot miss a hearing or I will be arrested and put in jail again.”

Nepal Reconstruction Offers Chance to Create Decent Jobs

Nepal Reconstruction Offers Chance to Create Decent Jobs

As Nepal rebuilds two years after a major earthquake killed thousands of people and displaced millions, the country has an opportunity to achieve more equitable economic development by laying the foundation for an environment that fosters good jobs that sustain long-term growth, according to a report launched today.

Nepal earthquake, Solidarity Center, migration, jobs“Rebuilding Nepal: Creating Good Jobs Amid Reconstruction and Migration,” by JustJobs Network and the Solidarity Center, asserts that Nepal is at a unique moment when it can leverage the reconstruction process to protect worker rights, provide family-supporting wages and ensure that migration out of the country for work is a choice, not a necessity.

Years before the April 24, 2015, earthquake, workers in Nepal found it increasingly necessary to migrate for good jobs. Between 2008–09 and 2014–5, the number of annual registered migrants from Nepal more than doubled—from fewer than 220,000 to nearly half a million. Most workers migrate for jobs in low-wage sectors on short-term visas tied to a specific employer, often paying high recruitment fees. They often are unpaid, receive few benefits, suffer from injuries and disproportionate death rates, and are vulnerable to human trafficking.

“The primary reason for out-migration is the condition of Nepal’s labor market, which offers few decent work just job opportunities,” according to the report.

Facilitating Labor Migration Is an Unstainable Economic Model

The country’s dependence on the remittances sent home by migrant workers has skyrocketed to the equivalent of 32.1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, up from 11.2 percent in 2004—an unproductive model for the country’s long-term economic development, according to the report.

“Addressing the absence of decent jobs in Nepal by facilitating labor migration is unsustainable and ignores the contributions that workers can make to the rebuilding of their country,” said Timothy Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia regional program director.

“If Nepal is to transform its economy and create decent jobs for its people, workers—including migrant workers who have gained skills and experience abroad—must be at the center of the process.”

The report recommends developing innovative policy tools to harness the productive potential of migrant workers’ talents and resources for job creation in communities of origin.

Crucially, it highlights the importance of all levels of government “committing to the creation of jobs that reflect the pillars of the decent work agenda, including conditions of freedom, equality, security and dignity; fair wages; and social protection for workers and their families while also offering workers fair remuneration and scope for economic mobility.” Workers’ ability to freely form unions to have a voice in the job-creation process and beyond must be a fundamental element of a successful and sustainable reconstruction effort.

Ronju: Helping Garment Workers Form Unions despite Danger

Ronju: Helping Garment Workers Form Unions despite Danger

Mohammad Ronju, a long-time organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) that has helped thousands of workers in 36 factories form unions, was one of the more than 35 people arrested in the December crackdown. On December 27, police entered the BIGUF office in Gazipur, arrested Ronju and later charged him in a January 2015 political opposition explosive substances case, in which he had no involvement. The case carries a sentence of three to twenty years in prison.

 After being denied bail repeatedly, Ronju was eventually granted bail and was released on February 16, 2017, after spending over 50 days in jail. The case is still pending.

……………………………………….

I grew up in Dinajpur (northern Bangladesh) and then moved to Dhaka to live with my aunt when I was 8 years old. As I got a little older, I knew I needed to do something to earn money so I got a job in a garment factory.

“At the age of 12 or 13 years old, I started working in a factory in Dhaka as a helper in the finishing section making 600 taka a month ($7.40).

“In 2006, I began working in a different factory in Gazipur where some of my co-workers first introduced me to BIGUF when there was a problem with unpaid wages. About 25 of us went to the federation office, and they worked with us to resolve the problem.

“Sometime later in 2011, when I worked in another factory, I tried to organize a union but I was fired. Another worker and I led the effort to sign up workers for the union and submitted an  application for registration to the government. I was terminated for union activity but BIGUF fought to get me reinstated in the factory. However, management later brought armed men into the factory to force me to leave my job and move from the area for good. They also went to my home and threatened my family.

“I left that factory and became a union organizer with BIGUF. I’m doing this because I was an abused worker and I want to do something for other workers. A union is the road to worker rights.”

With Union, Rana Plaza Disaster Would Not Have Happened

Since Rana Plaza, workers are now able to formally have their unions registered (by the government; a legal requirement) where they were not able to before. Workers are now more familiar about what trade unions are and what they do. Workers are also more aware of their safety. If there was a union at Rana Plaza, (the collapse) may not have happened. Union leaders could have talked with the owners about the problems there, and maybe so many workers would not have lost their lives. Maybe the leaders would have been harassed by the management, but so many workers would not have died.”

No Food, No Bed in Prison

“On December 27, I was at our BIGUF office in Gazipur when several police entered. They began reading a list of names of people that they were looking for and read my name. They arrested me and took me away in their car. I asked them what was my (reason for being arrested). They told me that there was no case against me but that they had received instructions to arrest me, so that is what they did.

“They brought me to a police station. I didn’t want to get in touch with my family because I didn’t want to worry them. Two days passed and I didn’t know what was going on. In lock-up we weren’t allowed anything—no shoes, no bed. I slept on the floor. The police didn’t feed me but some of the other prisoners shared their food. Eventually, they transferred me to the main jail where one of the officers at the gate used bad language with me.

“I was in jail for one month and 19 days. The first week in jail was really tense. I knew BIGUF would help me but I have a family and wasn’t sure how they would handle the situation. I also had communication with lots of factory workers and wasn’t sure what would happen to them. But after I was able to establish communication with everyone outside, I felt lighter.”

‘Police Instructed by Higher Authorities to Arrest Us’

Asad and Arif (two other BIGUF organizers arrested in Gazipur several days before Ronju) were also with me in jail. Asad and I slept in the same place, and Arif slept in a different place. Every morning we had to wake up at 5 a.m. and kneel on the ground so that the guards could count the prisoners. This would happen several times a day. The authorities would provide little and very low-quality food. No one could eat the vegetables and the small amount of rice provided was full of insects. But BIGUF arranged other, better quality food and items like blankets and plates to help us inside the jail.

“The false charges against me are about a political opposition case [and explosives?]. They put me in this case just to harass us (BIGUF). There is nothing there. The police were instructed by higher authorities to arrest us. BIGUF really works for the workers and that is why we were targeted.

“I have a wife and an 11-year-old son. I have received some pressure from my family, but I cannot leave my organization. This work is in my blood. We have not made any mistakes but we are harassed. We hope for the case to be withdrawn so we can again work more openly with the workers again.

“Although I’m on bail, because I have a case pending against me I still have to appear in court one day a month. The case is such that I cannot miss a hearing or I will be arrested and put in jail again.”

4 Years after Rana Plaza: Increased Worker Repression

4 Years after Rana Plaza: Increased Worker Repression

Bangladesh garment workers seeking to improve working conditions by forming unions at their factories are frequently verbally or physically abused by their employers, face an unfair and arbitrary government union registration process and are unable to seek justice when their rights are violated. Union organizers and leaders are arrested and jailed for their work, authorities fail to accept complaints or investigate charges, while employers often get away without penalties.

These are the findings by the Solidarity Center and our allies, four years after the deadly Rana Plaza building collapse in which more than 1,130 garment workers died and thousands injured on April 24, 2013.

“If there was a union at Rana Plaza, (the collapse) may not have happened,” says Ronju, a  garment worker organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF).

Improvements that Followed Rana Plaza Now Reversing

International outrage over the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashion Ltd. disasters prompted creation of the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord process, a five-year, legally binding agreement in which nearly 200 corporate clothing brands pay for garment factory inspections.

Safety and health improvements have been made in some factories as a result of the Accord, with dozens of garment factories closed for safety violations and pressing safety issues addressed. But to sustain the progress, workers need the ability to freely form unions to hold employers accountable for safe workplaces.

Although workers were more free to form unions in the first two years after the Rana Plaza tragedy, they increasingly are facing obstacles. Due to an arbitrary union registration process that is vulnerable to employer manipulation, approximately half of workers’ applications for a union have been rejected since 2013. Despite a massive demand from workers for a union after Rana Plaza, there was steep jump in rejections in 2015, according to Solidarity Center data. Over the past year, the rate of rejections in Chittagong has increased sharply.

“After Rana Plaza, we began to get union registration, but the hidden obstacles are still there,” says Asaduzzaman Asad, a BIGUF garment worker union organizer. “There are still many attempts to destroy the unions.”

Union Organizers Arrested under False Charges

Bangladesh, Solidarity Center, garment workers, Rana Plaza, human rights

Arif, Ronju and Asad, were arrested for their work helping garment workers form unions.

The minimum wage for garment workers is $68 a month, the lowest in Asia and below the World Bank poverty line, with garment workers fueling Bangladesh’s $28 million garment industry, which is the world’s second largest, after China.

The majority of Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers are women. Yet they risk employer harassment on the job and even at their homes, and sometimes are physically attacked and beaten when seeking a union.

In December, thousands of garment workers in the Ashulia factory district went on strike to demand an increase in the minimum wage. The strike began in a factory where two months earlier a young woman collapsed on the job and later died at a hospital. Her employer put her body outside the factory for her family to pick up.

Following the strikes, dozens of union and labor NGO offices were forced to close for over two months, and at least 35 union leaders, workers and activists were arrested on baseless charges. Some face life imprisonment or even death, according to the Solidarity Center legal team in Dhaka. Ronju and Asad are among them.

“The false charges against me are about a political opposition case,” says Ronju. “They put me in this case just to harass us (BIGUF). There is nothing there. The police were instructed by higher authorities to arrest us. BIGUF really works for the workers and that is why we were targeted.”

Since the strikes, union leaders report regular police visits to their offices, vandalism and destruction of union offices, police raids on training programs and activities and continuous police surveillance of union offices.

Up to 85 factories were closed after the strike—most of which had not been involved in the strike—and at least 1,600 workers were fired or forced to resign.

The crackdown has had a chilling effect on organizing and it is become even harder than it was before to address workers’ concerns, according to Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.

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