A new briefing from the Solidarity Center detailed the intimidation, arrests and firing that followed the garment worker walk-out in December. The Solidarity Center warned that the “broad crackdown on garment workers, union leaders and worker rights activists in Bangladesh marks a troubling escalation of workers to silence garment workers.”
The Solidarity Center warns that the broad crackdown on garment workers, union leaders and worker rights activists in Bangladesh marks a troubling escalation of efforts to silence garment workers and criminalize their fundamental rights to organize, speak to power and improve their lives and livelihoods.
In a new briefing document, the Solidarity Center outlines the intimidation, arrests and firings that followed a garment worker walk-out in December. It calls on the Bangladesh government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to stop the intimidation campaign; respect workers’ legal right to unionize and bargain with employers; negotiate with unions that represent workers’ interests; and raise the garment-sector minimum wage.
Since 2012, the Solidarity Center has recorded hundreds of cases of unfair labor practices, including physical attacks on union leaders, organizers and pro-union workers (and/or their families); kidnappings; threats of death and/or rape; false criminal charges; mass termination; stolen personal property; coercion; harassment; forced signing of “white papers,” that effectively increase production targets; and withholding of access to factory facilities and property (e.g., toilet, elevator).
In 2013, Bangladesh raised the minimum wage for garment workers to $68 a month, the lowest among garment workers in the region. For example, in China it is $265/month; Indonesia, $220; Vietnam, $131; India, $128; and Cambodia, $100. Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, is the 71st costliest city in the world, in line with Montreal, Canada.
The Bangladesh garment sector produces clothing for export, primarily to the United States and Europe. It employs nearly 5 million workers, the majority of them women.
You can defend Bangladesh garment organizers and worker-activists as they help workers who toil in unsafe factories for unfair—or unpaid—wages and who, without a union, cannot exercise their rights.
At least four garment workers lost their lives yesterday and dozens more were injured when the two flat-bed trucks they were commuting to work on collided, according to Solidarity Center staff at the site of the incident. One of the trucks was carrying 50 people and the other more than 70 workers. The deaths left at least eight children without their mother.
Agence France-Presse reports that 13 of the injured workers are in critical condition.
The incident happened as the Solidarity Center’s legal team was in court overseeing disbursement of the settlement to victims and surviving families of a bus crash that killed 19 workers and injured another 20 people last spring. Families of the deceased and workers injured in the May 2015 incident attended the court session, where they received meager payments of between $1,500 and $3,000 for the loss of their loved ones or their pain and suffering. After almost a year, a number of workers who survived say they have not received compensation due them from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
Cambodia’s garment sector features notoriously dangerous and largely unregulated transportation for its workers, who crowd onto open-air trucks to save money. According to Women’s Wear Daily, “73 garment workers died from traffic accidents while going to work, while 789 were injured” in 2014. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 garment workers were injured and 130 killed while they were being transported to and from factories in 2015, according to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
“The extremely high number of fatalities and injuries is completely unacceptable,” said William Conklin, Solidarity Center Cambodia program director. “Garment workers, or any other workers, should not have to fear for their life each day on the commute to and from work. Yet they do because of the confluence of low wages and high disregard for the lives of workers on the part of authorities and factory owners. Labor here is just a commodity.”
Cambodian unions say wages are vital to safe transport for Cambodian workers, and freedom of association is crucial to collective bargaining for higher wages. Just a short distance from the site of Tuesday’s crash, workers at a sweater factory continued their strike demanding, among other things, a $3 increase in the monthly transport allowance. The response from the factory and the authorities was a violent crackdown on striking workers, arresting five and injuring about 30 people, two of them seriously.
Six years after a major earthquake devastated the Haitian capital and its environs and the international community promised to “build back better,” Haitian workers say their daily lives are a struggle for survival, with their meager wages insufficient to cover basic expenses.
In recent interviews, Haitian garment workers told the Solidarity Center that they are worse off today than before the quake. With prices rising and wages largely stagnant, their paychecks do not allow them to support themselves and their families.
“We spend almost our entire daily wage on food and transportation,” said one garment worker interviewed. “We cannot save any money and we do not have enough money to get health care or education. Our future is compromised.”
Another worker said he sometimes has to borrow money to “make sure that at least the family has something to eat.”
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. According to the World Bank, more than 6 million of Haiti’s 10.4 million people (59 percent) live under the poverty line.
Haitian garment workers hold rare full-time jobs in an economy that is largely informal, and work for profitable multinational manufacturers, some incentivized to come to Haiti and create jobs after the quake. Yet garment-sector wages are legally set below the national minimum wage and well below what is necessary to cover basic costs. A December 2015 Solidarity Center analysis of living expenses found that the average garment worker spends 160–225 Haitian gourdes ($2.80 – $3.94) a day on food and transportation for herself, and another 395 gourdes ($6.91) on food for the household. The current minimum daily wage for garment workers, who work 48 hours a week, is 225–240 gourdes ($3.94–$4.20). The minimum wage is supposed to increase this spring, to $5.11 for an eight-hour shift.
In 2013, Haitian workers and their unions waged rallies and protests to demand that the daily minimum wage be increased to 500 gourdes ($8.75) for export apparel workers. The government set the wage at less than half of that. In 2014, the Solidarity Center found that a living wage of 1,000 gourdes per day would allow workers to meet their basic needs.
“As we mark this grim anniversary, we have to ask why the people best-positioned to revive the Haitian economy—hardworking Haitians—are handicapped by abysmal and degrading wages. Until Haitians can earn a living that allows them to do more than barely survive, there will be no real recovery,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center. “The international community and Haitian government should be ashamed of policies that guarantee poverty wages and grant concessions to multinational corporations instead of providing real opportunities for Haitians workers to improve their lives and livelihoods and build a better country for themselves and their children.”
Bilkish Begum says she and other workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh could not discuss implementing fire safety measures with their employer—even after the deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 workers three years ago next week. Only when they formed a union, which provides workers with protection against retaliation for seeking to improve their workplace conditions, could they take steps to help ensure their safety.
“Things have improved a lot regarding fire safety once we formed union as now we have the power to raise our voice,” she says.
Bilkish, 30, now a leader of a factory union affiliated with the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), is among hundreds of garment workers who have taken part in Solidarity Center fire safety trainings this year. The Solidarity Center works with garment workers, union leaders and factory management to improve fire safety conditions in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry through such hands-on courses as the 10-week Fire and Building Safety Resource Person Certification Training.
“I used to be afraid about fire eruption in my factory,” Bilkish says. “But after attending trainings, I feel that if we work together, we can reduce risk of fire in our factory.”
Fire remains a significant hazard in Bangladesh factories. Since the Tazreen fire, some 34 workers have died and at least 985 workers have been injured in 91 fire incidents, according to data collected by Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka, the capital. Incidents resulting in injuries include at least eight false alarms.
In January, after a short-circuit caused a generator to explode at one garment factory, Osman, president of the factory union and Popi Akter, another union leader, quickly addressed the fire and calmed panicked workers using the skills they learned through the Solidarity Center fire training. They also worked with factory management to correct other safety issues, like blocked aisles and stairwells cramped with flammable material.
Many workers who have taken part in the trainings say they are equipped to handle fire accidents.
“We are now confident after the training that we can help factory management and other workers if there is any incident of fire in our factory,” says Mosammat Doli, 35, a leader of a union affiliated with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF).
“From my experience at my factory, I have seen that an effective trade union can ensure fire safety in the factory as it can raise safety concerns,” he said.
Fewer than 3 percent of the 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh have a union. And according to the International Labor Organization, 80 percent of Bangladeshi garment factories need to address fire and electrical safety standards. Yet, despite workers’ efforts to form organizations to represent them this year, the Bangladeshi government rejected more than 50 registration applications—many for unfair or arbitrary reasons—while only 61 were successful. This is in stark contrast to only two years ago, when 135 unions applied for registration and the government rejected 25 applications, and to 2014, when 273 unions applied and 66 were rejected.
Without a union, workers often are harassed or fired when they ask their employer to fix workplace safety and health conditions.
Because his workplace has a union, which enabled Doli to participate in fire safety training, he—like Osman and Popi Aktee—already has potentially saved lives. Together with other union leaders, he helped evacuate workers and extinguish a fire in their garment factory.
Shahabuddin, 25, an executive member of his factory union, which is affiliated with SGSF, is among Bangladesh garment workers who see firsthand how unions help ensure safe and healthy working conditions. He says his workplace had no fire safety equipment—until workers formed a union and collectively raised the issue of job safety.
“Now management conducts fire evacuation drills almost regularly. We did not imagine it just a few years back. As we formed union, many things started changing,” he says.
Mushfique Wadud is Solidarity Center communications officer in Bangladesh.