Bangladeshi garment workers no longer are forced to stay on the job for literally weeks without a break and employers’ physical and verbal abuse has decreased—but significant improvements, especially in factory safety, remain to be made in the country’s important garment industry, several garment union leaders told a high ranking U.S. State Department official last weekend.

Eight women from unions and workers’ rights organizations recently discussed factory working conditions with Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, during a meeting at the Solidarity Center in the capital, Dhaka.

Noting the recent tragic deaths of 112 Bangladeshi garment workers, Verveer asked about firefighting equipment in factories.

“Although there is some firefighting equipment, we are not familiar with it and the training is not adequate,” said Pushpo, a sewing machine operator at Natural Apparels Ltd. The workers said management sets up fire extinguishers in factories to show the buyers but does not instruct workers in how to use them. Further, said Solidarity Center Country Program Director Alonzo Suson, “Although the representative of the buyers claim that they conduct unannounced inspection, somehow management always knows when the monitoring team will arrive in the factory.” As one worker told Verveer, management tells workers what to say to factory inspectors and, in a comment that generated laughter, added that “even the toilets are sprayed with perfume.”

Those meeting with Verveer included five factory workers and leaders of the two leading garment worker federations, the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation (BIGUF) and the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF). Kalpona, a representative from the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), a Solidarity Center partner, also took part.

The workers told Verveer that Bangladesh has made substantial progress in eliminating child labor. “When I started work in the factory, I was 9 or 10 years old,” said BIGUF General Secretary Morium Akter. “Now, the situation is different. Factories are strictly following the ‘no child labor’ policy.”

Although eradicating child labor is a big step forward, the workers say they see an ominous development. Increasingly, the government is aligning with factory owners to prevent workers from forming unions, a key step in their efforts to improve working conditions. Shumi, a sewing machine operator of Pastel Apparels Ltd., said she and her co-workers had submitted a registration certificate to the government, but it was denied. In the past four years, only two unions in Chittagong and one union in Dhaka received a government registration certificate, without which a union is not legally recognized.

Worse, after workers apply to the government for union registration, the government now sends the list of names to the factory, and the workers often are fired. “Now, we cannot differentiate between the owner and government administration,” said Akter. “We are still afraid of owners. Now we are afraid of the government as well.”

The union leaders meeting with Verveer understand that preventing workplace death and injury means workers—whose lives are at risk and who know best how dangerous their workplace can be—must be able to assert their rights, organize unions with their co-workers, raise safety concerns and demand better working conditions according to their best judgment. When Verveer encouraged the women workers to raise their voices to bring positive change to their workplaces, the workers said that with the support of unions and organizations such as BIGUF, BGIWF, BCWS and the Solidarity Center, they feel safe to speak out about safety and health and other key issues on the job.

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the News from The Solidarity Center