A new Solidarity Center study finds that, although Bangladesh claims the global lead in eco-friendly ready-made garment (RMG) manufacturing, government officials, factory owners and global fashion brands are not adequately addressing unhealthy working conditions, dangerous pollutants in the factory-adjacent communities in which garment workers are trapped by poverty wages, long working hours, or the negative effects of garment manufacturing on the environment.
Even in so-called green factories, “different stages of garments production may have serious impact on the physical and mental health and safety of the workers—emanating from yarn dust, excessive heat, use of chemicals, accidents, communicable diseases, lack of basic amenities and excessive workload,” says report author University of Dhaka International Relations Professor Dr. Syeda Rozana Rashid Rashid.
Bangladesh is the world’s top global sourcing location for international fashion brands. Of the country’s estimated 5,000 garment factories, in 2022 only 155 were certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green factories.
A comprehensive green solution, finds the report, requires engagement with workers and their unions as social partners in the design and implementation of environmental practices that also improve conditions for workers through collective bargaining and policy development. Partnership with workers and their unions will promote properly implemented climate-protection laws, policies and processes that better protect RMG workers from unhealthy and unsafe workplaces, factory-adjacent community members from garment production pollutants, and all citizens from climate change impacts, such as flooding and drought.
Also, to protect their health and well-being, garment workers must earn wages sufficient to pay for housing located away from their jobs, and work hours that make transportation from greater distance possible. More than 4 million people work in the RMG sector, most of whom are young women living near the factory where they work.
“The area is full of odorous waste and chemicals,” says a union leader about workers’ living conditions in her community.
“Even local drinking water takes different colors due to the nature of different chemicals disposed of in the river. Situations become intolerable during the rainy season when roads are overflown by the toxic water under heavy rain. Workers get infected by skin diseases.”
Interviews with 20 union members and leaders, and other experts from Dhaka and Gazipur, Savar and Chattogram regions also found that:
Not all green factories are labor rights compliant.
Garment workers’ vulnerability to environmental degradation and climate change will increase until their basic rights and needs are addressed by government and employers.
The communities surrounding RMG facilities are significantly impacted in terms of health, quality of life and, in many cases, by associated impacts on their livelihoods from farming and fishing.
Suffering due to excessive heat has become pervasive in RMG factories due to climate change, especially in the hot summer season, where lack of ventilation increases workers’ risk of being infected with communicable diseases, including COVID-19.
Many factories will not allow workers to organize, impeding their education on how production, climate change impacts and environmental degradation are linked to their health and well-being.
Global fashion brands largely do not take responsibility or accountability for environmental degradation, instead putting the responsibility on suppliers.
Although global fashion brands use their code of conduct as a voluntary policy tool to focus on international standards, they mostly ignore climate issues and their impact on workers and their communities.
The impact of climate change on factory workers is overlooked by formal inspection and monitoring mechanisms.
Union respondents cannot engage global buyers in pressuring local producers to implement measures to improve workers’ living conditions.
Without implementation demands and effective implementation processes, global brands’ prescribed eco-friendly standards appear to exist for appearances only in a process known as “greenwashing.”
“The factory is not green for the workers. We see a rosy picture; we hear nice stories. In reality, you would hardly hear workers’ voices in a green factory,” reports a union leader.
Bangladesh’s RMG sector accounts for 84 percent of the country’s exports. RMG exports more than doubled from 2011 through 2019—from $14.6 billion to $33.1 billion.
With long-term experience in people-centered policy and legislative rights-based advocacy, workers and their unions in Bangladesh are uniquely positioned to push forward a rights-based climate agenda as well as participate in a global climate justice movement.
“Without a union to safeguard workers’ interests and freedom of expression, no factory can properly be considered green,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center climate change and just transition global lead.
Climate change and environmental degradation have exacerbated gender inequality and worsened existing inequities resulting from resource scarcity, conflict and climate-related shocks. Women workers—particularly those in the informal economy—bear significant burdens due to the impacts of the climate crisis.
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Trade union women, activists and advocates gathered on March 17 for a virtual panel to discuss the impacts of climate change on women workers and the importance of their inclusion in developing climate solutions. The panel was sponsored by HomeNet International, HomeNet South Asia, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), StreetNet, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and the Solidarity Center.
Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center Global Lead on Climate Change and Just Transition, moderated the panel. She framed the discussion, saying, “There is no denying that the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world, with many of the worst impacts being experienced by those who have contributed least to the problem.” Mistry outlined the panel’s objectives, including highlighting the impact of climate change on women workers, emphasizing the role of workers and their organizations as critical partners in driving worker-responsive climate solutions, and recognizing that climate action requires coalition-building across social movements.
Navya D’Souza, Regional Coordinator for HomeNet South Asia, spoke about how climate change affects women workers in South Asia, where her organization represents 900,000 workers, 95 percent of whom are women. “Climate change is also a very, very gendered issue,’ she said. And home-based workers are seeing “an exponential increase in their already unfair burden of care work. This affects their ability to participate in the labor market.”
D’Souza said climate change also means more dangerous working conditions for home-based women workers. “Heat is rising, and because heat is rising, it affects our productivity,” she said. “We cannot work when it is too hot, and in urban settings, we live in crowded slum settlements. There is no respite from the heat, and we can’t go outside and work because it’s hot outside as well.”
D’Souza said HomeNet South Asia studied the impacts of climate change in South Asia by reaching out to 200 women across five locations in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. The study found that:
66 percent reported a loss of income due to heat and water stressors.
33 percent reported health implications, such as waterborne diseases, and increased healthcare spending.
47 percent reported an increase in unpaid care work, making it difficult for them to operate in the labor market.
A home-based worker focused on tailoring, pearl stringing and applying Kundan stones on fabric work, Sushma Mishra spoke of how climate change has impacted her work. “The roof of my house is made of cement, so it is very hot,” she said. “We face a very difficult situation in cold weather. It is very cold so we have to use electricity when working inside the house. We have to use lights. And there is no ventilation. There are no windows in the house. So that is a major challenge we are facing.”
Due to climate change, the frequency and severity of natural disasters also impact women workers. Albertina Simango, Vice President of Associação da Economia Informal de Moçambique (AEIMO) said, “Here in Mozambique particularly, because of the country’s geographic location, we have been suffering many natural events provoked by climate change. Just to give you an example, in less than 20 years, we have been hit by more than 15 climate events.”
Natural disasters, Simango said, have caused a steep increase in the growth of the informal sector. “Unfortunately, women are the base of the pyramid. The vulnerability of informal women workers is so bad that even children are affected,” she said. “I feel very sad to see women who lose everything they had because of climate events, and afterward they have to have their children negotiate and do business to help support the families.”
Additionally, women workers often work longer hours and face violence and harassment due to traditional gender roles.”They have to work very, very long hours to support their families. Some of them have to work 18 hours a day. This means getting up at 5 a.m. when it’s still dark and going back home at 9 p.m.”
According to Rina Begum, President of the Bangladesh Waste Pickers Union, environmental workers like waste pickers get short shrift. “Waste pickers keep the city clean, but they don’t get good prices. We have no value. If the government provided jobs, we could have a better life.”
In Brazil, Carmen Helena Ferreira Foro, secretary-general, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), said that the effects of climate change are exacerbated by industrial projects that do not consider the impact and are slow to benefit indigenous populations. “Everything is interconnected,” Foro said, “deforestation, water problems, rains — all the causes and effects of climate change impact the livelihoods of indigenous populations.”
“I am a family farmer from a part of the Amazon. I have to daily live with large projects in the Amazon region. They do not consider people’s lives. They exploit them and never redistribute the meaning of this energy,” she said.
“It took us 20 years to get any energy after they built a dam,” she said. “And now we are undergoing a new phase of building a waterway in the same river that was already affected.”
Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, Regional Manager of the Shifting the Power Coalition, wrapped up the discussion by emphasizing the importance of including women workers in planning responses to climate-related disasters. “We’ve been working to ensure that women who have the knowledge, skills and capacity can articulate their needs and be at the table as they want to, and to be able to lead in disaster planning and response.
“The response aspect of disaster management is critical because the economic strategy, the recovery strategy, is vital at that stage,” Bhagwan-Rolls said. “The post-disaster needs assessment requires the feminist analysis, requires the visibility of women, particularly women workers in all the diversities presented by the speakers today.”
Union leaders and labor rights activists are demanding the government of Bangladesh secure jobs for tannery workers before taking punitive action against the industry for its role in environmental pollution.
The demand was made at a discussion following the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to close polluting tanneries in Hemayetpur, located in the Savar area, which is also home to much of the country’s garment sector. The discussion was organized by the Bangladesh Tannery Workers Union and the Solidarity Center.
Tannery Workers Union (TWU) President Abul Kalam Azad emphasized that tannery workers were not responsible for the pollution but would be hardest hit by the action.
“Workers are never responsible for the environmental pollution caused by the tannery industry,” Azad said. “On the contrary, effective measures should be taken to protect the tannery industry and workers by bringing those responsible for the waste management crisis and pollution of the environment due to their negligence and irresponsibility.”
Leather production is one of Bangladesh’s oldest industries, and tanneries employ 92 percent of all leather workers. The country’s leather exports satisfy one-tenth of world demand.
Tannery Waste Harming Communities
The leather industry is also a major polluter. For decades, tanneries in the main industrial site in Dhaka dumped 22,000 cubic meters of toxic waste daily into the Buriganga River, according to the government’s reports. The pollution wiped out aquatic life and forced the city to rely heavily on groundwater for washing and drinking.
In 2017, amid increasing international pressure about toxic environmental and working conditions in tanneries, the Bangladesh government ordered a massive relocation of the industry from Hazaribagh, a Dhaka neighborhood and one of the most polluted places on Earth, to the newly built Tannery Industrial Estate in Hemayetpur—just 14 miles outside of the capital. Of the 220 tanneries at the Dhaka site, 123 completed the move and are currently operating in Savar. The move impacted approximately 25,000 workers and their families.
The new site included a central effluent treatment plant (CETP) and facilities for chrome recovery, water treatment, and sludge treatment. However, the system is not treating all of the sludge and effluents produced by the factories, creating an additional environmental threat.
The local community says the Dhaleshwari River has become “unusable” and “toxic,” for themselves and their livestock, and farmers cannot use the river for irrigation, affecting their livelihoods.
At a recent discussion marking the 57th anniversary of the founding of the Tannery Workers Union, speakers called on the government to take steps to solve the existing problems of the industry and to build an environmentally friendly leather industry.
TWU General Secretary Abdul Maleque spoke of the union’s history. “Tannery Workers’ Union has been beside the workers for the last 57 years with the participation of all workers irrespective of any party affiliation,” said Maleque. “For the last 38 years, the Tannery Workers’ Union has been working to protect the rights and interests of workers by executing bilateral collective bargaining agreements with employers’ associations every two years, which is a unique example in the history of trade unions in Bangladesh. There is no alternative to organizing the workers and building strong workers’ unions to realize their rights.”
Worker rights advocates and the international human rights community are expressing sorrow, disbelief and outrage over the horrific fire at the Hashem Foods Ltd., factory in Bangladesh that killed at least 52 workers and more than a dozen children early this week. News reports say factory exits were locked, trapping the 200 workers inside. Three workers died jumping from the burning building.
“We believe that the fire has occurred as a result of non-compliance with law and safety regulations of the institution. This amounts to murder committed by the factory,” three major union federations said in a statement. Chemicals and flammable substances like polythene and clarified butter contributed to the blaze in the factory, and made it more difficult to bring under control, according to CNN.
The Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) and Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) went on to call on the government to immediately investigate the cause of the fire and to provide fair compensation to those injured and to the families of those killed.
The fire amounts to “premeditated murder,” says Nahidul Hasan Nayan, general secretary of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF). “Workers whose sweat has built palaces lost their lives due to the greed of owners, their lack of accountability, irresponsibility, brutality and lack of safety at work. We demand the culprits to be brought to swift justice.”
Bangladesh Accord Must Be Renewed
Worker rights advocates say the Hashem factory fire highlights the need for multinational brands to renew the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a landmark agreement that made factories safer for 2 million garment workers. Signed by fashion brands and unions in 2013, the Accord was set apart from previous safety agreements because it was legally binding, providing a key enforcement mechanism for workers and their unions to hold individual brands and retailers accountable.
The Accord was set to expire May 31, but corporate brands agreed to a three-month extension to allow for more time to conclude negotiations on a new binding safety agreement. Global union leaders and human rights activists say the Accord must also be expanded beyond fashion brands.
“While huge strides have been made in the garment industry safety—thanks to the Bangladesh Accord—it is a reminder that without robust and independent systems to enforce safe working conditions, the very worst can happen,” says UNI Global Union General Secretary Christy Hoffman.
Workers say that through their unions, they are able to advocate for safe working conditions without fear of being disciplined or even fired. As with the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, that killed more than 1,100 garment workers, and the 2012 Tazreen factory fire that killed more than 112 garment workers, those at the Hashem Foods factory did not have a union to help them fight for a safe workplace or ensure children were not employed.
Says Chandon Kumar, BIGUF president: “Government agencies create investigation committees just for show. How come they did not see child labor and insufficient fire protection? We must have the right to form unions, democratic process and the freedom to speak up.”
Jesmin Begum, a Bangladesh garment worker in her early 30s, died as she and hundreds of others rallied for unpaid wages in one of Dhaka’s Export Processing Zones (EPZs).
A sewing operator, Begum was laid off in January from Lenny Fashion, Ltd., after the factory closed. Although management said it would pay unpaid wages by May, the company never fulfilled its commitment, and workers gathered at the Nabinagar-Chandra highway outside the EPZ June 13 to demand payment.
When the workers at Lenny Fashion Ltd. and another factory that was closed by the same company refused to move from the road after two hours, the police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse them, and Begum died after she fell fleeing the police violence. Dozens of workers also were injured.
“We are always told that in EPZ factories, BEPZA [Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority] enforces workers’ rights properly and vigorously, but BEPZA, as in many other previous cases, has miserably failed here that led to the workers’ protest and death of Jesmin,” says Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF)
Worker Rights Abused, EPZs Make Billions
Bangladesh’s eight EPZs received $333.38 million in foreign direct investment and made $7.52 billion from exports in the 2018–2019 fiscal year. Yet Bangladesh workers in EPZs face daunting odds in trying to redress often poor and dangerous factory safety and health conditions, retrieve unpaid wages or end abusive treatment by supervisors because the zones are exempt from the country’s labor laws and workers are prohibited from forming unions.
The terms and conditions of service for EPZ workers are regulated by BEPZA, essentially eliminating collective bargaining. Labor inspectors are not permitted to inspect factories in the zones and, unlike workers covered under the nation’s labor laws, workers in EPZs do not have the legal right to file a case challenging illegal termination.
In addition, says Akhter, “BEPZA and the employers are systematically dissolving the worker welfare associations in EPZ factories to eliminate any kind of voice of the workers in the workplace.”
With Unions, Workers Advocate for Safe Jobs
Although the government of Bangladesh in 2019 amended the EPZ law with the aim of bringing it more in line with its labor laws and international labor standards, the ILO found the new EPZ Law failed to address the vast majority of these concerns. “Importantly, the new law continues to deny EPZ workers the right to form or join a union,” according to the ILO.
“The EPZ workers must be allowed to exercise their rights to join union of their own choosing, removing the discrimination between the EPZ and non-EPZ workers,” Akhter says.
Without the ability to form unions, garment workers cannot collectively push for safety and health improvements at their workplaces. After more than 1,200 garment workers died in two tragic factory disasters in 2012 and 2013, unions have been a key partner with fashion brands in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a landmark agreement that made factories safer for 2 million garment workers. Worker rights advocates are urging extension of the Accord, which expires in three months.
Yet the BEPZA did not allow the Accord to inspect any of the EPZ factories—all the more reason, worker advocates say, garment workers must be able to form union and collectively bargain.
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