Bangladesh’s longstanding abuse of worker rights, failure to enforce labor laws, and increasing violence against labor activists, including threats and murder, were the focus of a human rights hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill, where a senior Solidarity Center staffer and other regional and rights experts provided testimony.

Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia Regional Program Director, told members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that Bangladeshis toil at some of the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs in Asia. Despite a labor code that addresses pay, working hours, and on-the-job conditions, many Bangladeshi workers still face inadequate health and safety protections at work and receive less than the minimum wage, among other violations of their rights.

Because their attempts to organize have been thwarted, Ryan said, workers have no channel through which to voice their grievances and negotiate with management in order to improve their rights and working conditions. Strikes and worker actions are their only weapons in the fight for decent jobs that can support them and their families.

“Over the past three years, hundreds of garment workers have been injured, and some killed, in clashes with police while demonstrating or on strike for worker rights, most often higher wages,” said Ryan, who has been involved with worker rights in Bangladesh for the past 15 years. “Several prominent labor activists have been arrested and taken to trial on trumped-up charges associated with these demonstrations.”

Ryan cited the most recent, egregious example of violence against labor activists—the murder in early April of Aminul Islam, an organizer for the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) whose body bearing signs of torture was found more than 60 miles away from where he had disappeared four days earlier. Aminul was a longtime friend and colleague of the Solidarity Center.

“Aminul trained, recruited, and organized workers in the RMG sector and the export processing zones,” said Ryan. “Due to his activities, Aminul was threatened by gangsters working for garment factory owners, was continuously under police surveillance, and was detained and beaten by the National Security Intelligence in June 2010. False criminal charges were filed against Aminul along with his colleagues in BGIWF and the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity for supposedly causing unrest during the minimum wage campaign by garment workers during the summer of 2010.”

Ryan said that although Bangladesh authorities are following up, observers in-country and throughout the world are concerned that no credible, transparent, and accountable investigation of the murder will actually take place. During a May visit to Bangladesh, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that an independent investigation would be “a real test for the government and for the society to make sure you don’t say that anyone can have impunity.”

Ryan cited some “incremental” progress in achieving worker rights. For example, he said, child labor has been all but eliminated in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) factories, but more than 7 million children still work in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, domestic service, and the hotel and restaurant industry. According to Solidarity Center reports published in 2008 and 2012 child labor persists in shrimp- and seafood-processing plants.

Ryan offered several recommendations for improving worker rights in Bangladesh:

  • National and global worker and human rights organizations must continue to press for real freedom of association in Bangladesh.
  • The Bangladesh business community must recognize that its actions to repress workers have consequences, in terms of not only impoverishing its own workforce, but also injuring the industry’s reputation in the eyes of other governments and the Western brands upon which they depend for business.
  • The Bangladesh government must live up to its obligation as a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to protect and promote fundamental worker rights and should face punitive action by the ILO Governing Body if it fails to do so.

“The Bangladesh government has choices about development policy and how to best bring its people out of poverty,” Ryan concluded.  “The strikes, violence, and continuing worker dissatisfaction with the status quo demonstrate that the low-wage, low-rights model is not its best option—and U.S. government, ILO, and NGO pressure can help the government to change course and support its workers as they attempt to better their own lives.”

Ryan shared the podium with Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Eric Biel, Acting Associate Deputy Undersecretary, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor; and John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch. The commission is named in honor of the late Rep. Thomas Peter Lantos (D-CA), who co-founded and co-chaired its predecessor, the Human Rights Caucus. Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in the U.S. Congress, from 1980 until his death in 2008.

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