[CNBC] Bangladesh Faces Twin Crises as Coronavirus Deals New Blow to Flood-battered Nation

“We see desperate workers willing to accept very low wages in extremely dangerous conditions, with no serious health and safety protections, let alone social distancing measures or personal protective equipment,” said Jon Hartough, Solidarity Center Bangladesh program director. When Bangladesh reopened hundreds of garment factories in April, thousands of desperate workers flocked back to overcrowded industrial areas, including the capital of Dhaka, which currently has the bulk of the country’s reported coronavirus infections.

 

Laid-off Bangladesh Garment Workers Rally, Win Wages, Bonus

Laid-off Bangladesh Garment Workers Rally, Win Wages, Bonus

After hundreds of laid-off garment workers took to the streets of Ashulia, Bangladesh, and rallied at the Dhaka Export Processing Zone in recent weeks, factory management and the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority agreed to compensate them with one month’s wages and the annual Eid festival bonus.

Bangladesh, garment worker, laid off due to COVID-19, worker rights, Solidarity Center

Maksuda: “When we united together, management had no choice.” Credit: Shumon Ali

Because all 130 retrenched workers had worked at the factory less than a year, the company was not required by law to provide them with compensation after they were laid off. Yet all the workers received between $150 and $315, a major achievement that Maksuda, one of the factory workers who took part in the action, says resulted from unity and collective action.

“I did not think we would get it, but when we united together management had no other choice. I am quite happy with the money I have received.”

The Talisman Limited factory workers are among tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers who have lost their jobs because of declining clothing orders worldwide following outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government reports that 29,369 garment workers have been laid off, but union leaders say the numbers are much higher.

Garment Workers Stand Together to Win Pay after Country-wide Layoffs

Workers and unions have been taking action at factories around the country in response to layoffs, and in many cases have blocked traffic or halted work to have their demands met. Overall, Bangladesh has lost more than $3.18 billion in orders since April and the start of COVID-19, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association.

Maksuda, like the other retrenched factory workers, received her layoff notice by text message. Desperate to support her family, she joined with Farida, Tania and 11 other laid-off garment workers to contact the Solidarity Center for assistance.

The Solidarity Center legal team advised each worker to seek one month’s basic pay as compensation, along with a festival bonus. The next day, the leaders organized all the retrenched workers and went to the factory, but they found the factory gates locked and no management in sight, so they proceeded to the Dhaka Export Processing Zone to demand payment. In the process, they set an example of the concrete gains collective action can achieve.

Talisman Limited employs some 1,200 workers, at least 70 percent of whom are women.

Giving Voice to Hope in Bangladesh

Giving Voice to Hope in Bangladesh

The three-year anniversary of the November 24, 2012, fire that killed 112 Bangladesh garment workers at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd., factory offers a time to reflect on garment workers’ ongoing struggle for workplaces where they will not be killed or injured and for jobs that will support their families.

The Tazreen fire was preventable, as was the collapse of the multistory Rana Plaza factory five months later in which more than 1,130 garments workers died and thousands more were severely injured.

Workers at Tazreen and Rana Plaza did not have a union or other organization to represent them and help them fight for a safe workplace. Without a union, garment workers say they are harassed and even fired when they raise safety issues with their employer. They are not trained in basic fire safety measures and often their factories, like Tazreen, have locked emergency doors and stairwells packed with flammable material.

Despite the many obstacles to forming organizations and achieving a voice at work, garment workers are at the forefront of pushing for change at their factories. With our strong and long-term grassroots connections in Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center allies with garment workers to provide ongoing training for factory-level union leaders on topics such as gender equality, workers’ legal rights and fire safety.

This photo gives voice to the sorrow, but also the hope, of the 4 million workers who toil in Bangladesh garment factories.

Bangladesh.garment-workers.still-from-video.Law-at-the-Margins.9.2015

Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers, mostly women, toil in 5,000 factories across the country, making the $25 billion garment industry the world’s second largest, after China. Yet many risk their lives to make a living. In the three years since the fatal Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory fire, some 31 workers have died and at least 935 people have been injured in garment factory fire incidents in Bangladesh. Credit: Law at the Margins

Bangladesh, Tazreen, Solidarity Center, garment worker

Tahera cannot remember much about her life before the day she was trapped in the Tazreen fire. She is unable to care for her 4-year-old son and rarely comes out of her room. “It seems to me that something dark comes to my door and is calling me,” she says. “When I see the darkness, I become unstable and want to go far away from here.”

Bangladesh, garment workers, human rights, Solidarity Center, job safety

Tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers held rallies on May Day this year to highlight the need for the freedom to form worker organizations to ensure safe and healthy workplaces. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim

Bangladesh, migrant workers, human rights, Solidarity Center

With few jobs available that pay a living wage, more than 600,000 Bangladeshi workers migrate each year. Yet, “after two years, after three years, they are not getting their salary,” says Sumaiya Islam, director of the Bangladesh Migrant Women’s Organization (BOMSA). “After spending $1,000 (to labor recruiters), they are not getting paid.” Credit: Shahjadi Zaman

Migrants from Bangladesh, protest

Migrants from Bangladesh also risk their lives when going overseas for jobs. In June, Bangladesh families rallied to demand the government punish traffickers after many Bangladesh workers were among migrants stranded on abandoned boats by unscrupulous labor traffickers. “I did not get anything to eat for 22 days and just survived by eating tree leaves,” Abdur said, describing his journey to Malaysia. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mushfique Wadud

Bangladesh, Rana Plaza, garment worker, Solidarity Center

On April 24, 2013, the multistory Rana Plaza factory collapsed, a preventable tragedy that killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured thousands more. On the two year anniversary in April, family members and friends gathered at the site of the building to commemorate their loss. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim

Bangladesh, Rana Plaza, garment workers, Solidarity Center

Thousands of garment workers, like Mosammat Mukti Khatun (above, looking at the Rana Plaza rubble) who survived the Rana Plaza disaster, remain too injured or ill to work and support their families. Survivors and the families of those who lost loved ones in the collapse say they are struggling to make ends meet, unable to pay rent, send their children to school or provide for other basic needs. Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim

Bangladesh, garment workers, Rana Plaza, Solidarity Center

Days before tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers rallied on the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, the ITUC released a report that found “a severe climate of anti-union violence and impunity prevails in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The violence is frequently directed by factory management. The government of Bangladesh has made no serious effort to bring anyone involved to account for these crimes.” Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim

Bangladesh, garment workers, Solidarity Center

The Solidarity Center launched the Bangladesh Worker Rights Defense Fund in April 2014, following an increase in violence and harassment against workers who were seeking to form unions to protect their health and rights on the job. Donations of more than $15,500 helped to provide costly medical treatment for organizers beaten or attacked while speaking to workers about their rights, and temporary food and shelter for workers fired for trying to improve their workplace. Credit: Solidarity Center/Shawna Bader-Blau

Bangladesh, garment workers, human rights, Solidarity Center

Despite employer and government resistance to workers’ efforts to form organizations to improve job safety, in the Dhaka export processing zone alone, 40 of the 103 factories include workers’ welfare associations, which are similar to unions. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mushfique Wadud

Bangladesh, women garment workers, human rights, Solidarity Center

Women garment workers primarily fuel Bangladesh’s $25 billion a year garment industry, yet women are “still viewed as basically cheap labor,” says Lily Gomes, Solidarity Center senior program officer for Bangladesh. “There is a strong need for functioning factory-level unions led by women,” says Gomes, who is leading efforts to help empower women workers to take on leadership roles at factories and in unions throughout Bangladesh. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Conradt

Bangladesh, garment workers, Solidarity Center

With strong and long-term grassroots connections in Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center provides ongoing training for garment worker union leaders on topics such as gender equality, workers’ legal rights and job safety. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim

Bangladesh, garment workers, Solidarity Center

Garment worker union leaders sharpen their skills through regular Solidarity Center workshops, such as this one on financial management. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim

Bangladesh, garment workers, fire safety, Solidarity Center

Hundreds of garment worker union leaders have participated this year in the Solidarity Center’s 10-week fire safety certification course. “People who worked at Tazreen and Rana Plaza had no training and had no union,” says Saiful, who took part in a recent fire training. “This training is about making sure those things never happen again.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Rakibul Hasan

Dying for a Job: Commemorating the Anniversary of the 2012 Tazreen Factory Fire

Dying for a Job: Commemorating the Anniversary of the 2012 Tazreen Factory Fire

Four million garment workers, mostly women, toil in 5,000 factories across Bangladesh, making the country’s $25 billion garment industry the world’s second largest, after China.

Wages are the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations, while the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Luxembourg and Montreal.

The workers receive few or no benefits and often struggle to support their families. Many risk their lives to make a living.

On November 24, 2012, a massive fire tore through the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 110 garment workers and gravely injuring thousands more.

In the wake of this disaster, garment workers throughout Bangladesh are standing up for their rights to safe workplaces and living wages. With the Solidarity Center, which partners with unions and other organizations to educate workers about their rights on the job, garment workers are empowered with the tools they need to improve their workplaces together.

Learn more about the Solidarity Center’s work in the global garment industry

 

DISASTER STRIKES TAZREEN

Bangladesh, Tazreen, fire safety, garment worker, Solidarity Center

Tahera Tahera cannot remember much about her life before the day she was trapped in the Tazreen fire. She is unable to care for her four-year-old son and rarely comes out of her room. “It seems to me that something dark comes to my door and is calling me,” she says. “When I see the darkness, I become unstable and want to go far away from here,” she said.

On November 24, 2012, women and men working overtime on the Tazreen production lines were trapped when fire broke out in the first-floor warehouse. Workers scrambled toward the roof, jumped from upper floors or were trampled by their panic-stricken co-workers. Some could not run fast enough and were lost to the flames and smoke.

Hundreds of those injured at Tazreen, like Tahera (above), will never be able to work again. Survivors say they endure daily physical and emotional pain, and often are unable to support their families because they cannot work and have received little or no compensation.

Some 80 percent of export-oriented ready made garment (RMG) factories in Bangladesh need improvement in fire and electrical safety standards, despite a government finding most were safe, according to a recent International Labor Organization (ILO) report.

TAZREEN NOT UNIQUE

The Tazreen fire was not an isolated incident. Months after the Tazreen disaster, more than 1,000 garment workers were killed when the Rana Plaza building collapsed.

Approximately 2,500 people were injured—many of them losing limbs and thousands more severely traumatized.

Workers were forced to return to the building despite the warnings of structural engineers that the building was unsound.

On the five-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, women garment workers rally in Savar, Bangladesh with the relatives of those who died or were grievously injured. Credit: Solidarity Center/Musfiq Tajwar

FACTORIES CAN BE MADE SAFE

From November, 2012 to March, 2018, Bangladesh’s garment sector has suffered 3,875 injuries and 1,303 deaths due to fires, building collapses and other tragedies, according to data collected by the Solidarity Center.

The Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza collapse were preventable. Workers at Tazreen and Rana Plaza did not have a union or other organization to represent them and help them fight for a safe workplace.

Without a union, garment workers often are harassed or fired when they ask their employer to fix workplace safety and health conditions.

They are not trained in basic fire safety measures and often their factories, like Tazreen, have locked emergency doors and stairwells packed with flammable material.

Unions have helped to improve these conditions.

A young woman protests garment worker deaths in Bangladesh. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sifat Sharmin Amita

WORKERS DEMAND CHANGE

Garment workers throughout Bangladesh have staged rallies to demand that multinational corporations respect their human rights.

Women rally for their rights with labor rights organization and Solidarity Center partner Awaj Foundation near the Dhaka Press Club on May 1, 2018. Credit: Solidarity Center/Musfiq Tajwar

They have joined together to form workplace unions and bargain for safe working conditions, better wages and respect on the job.

Credit: Solidarity Center

WORKERS STAND TOGETHER

When workers stand together, they can make their voices heard without fear.

The Solidarity Center partners with numerous unions and worker associations in Bangladesh. Credit: Solidarity Center

UNIONS SAVING LIVES

Worker voices have yielded real results.

Over the past few years, the Solidarity Center has held fire safety trainings for hundreds of garment factory workers.

Workers learn fire prevention measures, find out about safety equipment their factories should make available and get hands-on experience in extinguishing fires.

The Solidarity Center has also trained more than 6,000 union leaders and workers in fire safety, helping to empower factory-floor-level workers to monitor for hazardous
working conditions and demand safety violations be corrected.

Union leaders participate in the Solidarity Center’s 10-week fire safety certification course. Credit: Solidarity Center

Union leaders participate in the Solidarity Center’s 10-week fire safety certification course. Credit: Solidarity Center

CHANGE IS POSSIBLE

Salma (below), a garment worker, and her co-workers faced stiff employer resistance when they sought to form a union.

With assistance from the Solidarity Center and the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), to which their factory union is affiliated, workers negotiated a wage increase, maternity benefits and safe drinking water.

The factory now is clean, has adequate fire extinguishers on every floor, and a fire door has replaced a collapsible gate.

More than five years later, 445 factories with over 216,000 workers have unions to represent their interests and protect their rights.

Salma, a garment factory union leader in Bangladesh, says with a union, the factory is safer and workers have better wages. Credit: Solidarity Center

CHANGES ARE POSSIBLE IF YOU HAVE UNION AND YOU CAN MAKE IT WORK.” – SALMA

Garment workers learn fire safety and other measures to improve their working conditions. Credit: Solidarity Center

INVISIBLE NO LONGER

When women workers form unions, they improve their working conditions. Through Solidarity Center workshops and leadership training, more women are running for union office.

Women now make up more than 61 percent of union leadership in newly formed factory level-unions.

As workers strengthen their collective voice in their workplaces and beyond, their hard work, their lives and their humanity become visible once more.

Bipasha, Quality Inspector (bottom left). Rina, Operator (bottom right) . Ratan, Tailor (top right). Credit: Solidarity Center

Mahfuza, Assistant Operator (top right). Sharifa, General Operator (bottom right). Credit: Solidarity Center

To learn more about garment workers in global supply chains and how the Solidarity Center supports them, visit solidaritycenter.org.

How Much Is a Worker’s Life Worth?

According to AKM Nasim, senior legal counselor, Solidarity Center, cases under The Fatal Accidents Act of 1855 take a long time to be resolved, and the court fee is unaffordable for a Bangladeshi laborer. “In fact, a case was filed demanding compensation by the wife of a road accident victim named Mozammel Hossain under this Act and it took 20 years to get the final verdict,” he said.

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