The Bangladesh cabinet approved a change to the nation’s labor laws that it says would enable workers to more freely form unions. The proposal, which must be approved by Parliament, would allow workers to join unions without showing the list of union supporters to factory owners to verify their employment—a practice that effectively makes it impossible for unions to gather sufficient support to register with the government because factory owners often penalize or fire workers who support unionization.
The move follows an announcement that the Bangladesh government would raise the minimum wage for the nation’s 4 million garment workers. Bangladesh garment workers at minimum are paid $37 a month, the lowest wages in the global garment industry, while often risking their lives just to be at work.
The government’s step toward improving Bangladesh labor laws is welcome, but significant issues remain, says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan.
“Registering unions is only part of the difficulty workers experience when they seek to form a trade union,” Ryan says. “In the ready-made garment industry, workers who want to join a union report they face anti-union harassment and discrimination on the job. Until the government takes steps to afford workers their fundamental right of freedom of association by bringing its labor laws into full compliance with international standards, Bangladesh garment workers will not be able to have a voice on the job that they need to improve safety and health conditions.”
Ryan also points to the lack of movement in finding those responsible for the murder of Aminul Islam, a union organizer in the garment sector who was tortured and killed last year. “Finding the perpetrators of those who murdered Aminul and obtaining justice for him would emonstrate that Bangladesh respects the rights of its workers.”
On Monday, major retailers that represent the largest purchasers of clothes made in Bangladesh announced they would help finance safety upgrades at apparel factories. This move follows the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, which resulted in the world’s worst industrial disaster since the 1984 Bhopal explosion in India. The announcement comes as rescue efforts ended at the site, with the bodies of 1,127 workers recovered from the rubble. The building housed five garment factories.
These actions by the government and brands follow weeks of protests and walkouts by garment workers across the capital, Dhaka, who joined together to demand safe working conditions and wages that can support themselves and their families.
Three factories closed Monday after workers spotted cracks on a wall. They immediately evacuated the building that housed the factories and began protesting outside. After cracks surfaced in the Rana building on April 24, garment workers were told to report to work. Within hours, the building pancaked in on itself.
In Ashulia, near Dhaka, garment makers said yesterday they are indefinitely closing all factories in the area because of worker protests. Workers have been demanding pay increases, benefits and workplace safety for the past 12 days. Ashulia’s more than 300 garment factories account for nearly 20 percent of total garment exports.
Also on Monday, several hundred workers at a ready-made garment factory blocked a road in Mirpur area of the capital for more than two hours, protesting dismissal of 13 co-workers.
Arati Bala Das, 18, was among those pulled from the Rana building after being pinned under a concrete pillar for three days. “When the building collapsed, I felt that I was going down,” she told Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka. “When it stopped, I found myself in the dark. It was difficult to breathe. I could not see anything. I could not move a bit. I realized that two dead bodies had fallen on my legs and a pillar had fallen on those dead bodies. I was very much afraid and I thought I would not be able to return alive.”
Arati’s mother, Titon, was killed in the collapse and Arati’s right leg was amputated. Both worked at New Wave Style Ltd. factory. Her father Adhir Chandra Das, a day laborer, now faces the likely impossible task of supporting Arati and her three young sisters without the additional wages of his wife and eldest daughter.
In November 2012, a fire at Tazreen Fashions killed at least 112 garment workers. Since that blaze, 18 garment workers have died at their workplaces and more than 650 have been injured in 43 fire incidents, according to data compiled by Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka. Just days after the Rana collapse, eight workers were killed at the Tung Hai Sweater Factory.