Bangladesh Garment Worker Dies in Rally for Unpaid Wages

Bangladesh Garment Worker Dies in Rally for Unpaid Wages

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.

As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to worker rights abuses. Although they are allowed to organize and form workers welfare associations (WWAs) at their factories, the WWAs do not have the same rights as unions. The ILO Committee of Experts has identified numerous provisions in the WWAs that violate ILO Conventions 87 and 98 on the freedom to form unions an bargain collectively.

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.

Haitian Workers March, Protest Garment Worker’s Death

Haitian Workers March, Protest Garment Worker’s Death

Garment workers in Haiti are calling for action after Sandra René, a garment worker at the Palm Apparel factory, died due to pregnancy complications in early August. René was turned away from the hospital where she sought medical care because the factory had not paid into the health insurance system for occupational injury, sickness and maternity (OFATMA) on her behalf, as legally required.

Hundreds of garment workers marched with René’s casket in a funeral procession to the OFATMA offices to protest her death. A 10-year employee with the factory, René was six months pregnant when she sought medical care and died at her home four days later. The country’s garment industry is the second largest source of formal employment for workers in Haiti, where the majority of 57,000 garment workers are women and often the only wage earners for their families.

With their unions, the Association of Textile Workers Unions for Re-importation (GOSTTRA) and Workers Struggle (Batay Ouvriye), workers are demanding that employers meet their legal obligations so Haitian workers can access health care, especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Few Garment Factories Pay into Required Health, Pension Funds

Few factories make the required contributions to the health or pension funds. Some 83 percent of factories were noncompliant with such legal requirements between April 2019 and March 2020, according to Better Work Haiti (BWH). Employers are required to register workers in the system, and both employers and workers must contribute the equivalent of 3 percent of the employees’ wages for the past pay period to OFATMA. The employer is responsible for deducting the employees’ contributions from paychecks but often either do not register workers or take paycheck deductions without sending the funds to OFATMA.

Garment workers began returning to the job as early as April when factories reopened after shuttering for a month to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. Desperate for wages to support themselves and their families, workers risk COVID-19 exposure during crowded work commutes.Workers say they fear they will not have access to health care if they become ill because employers are not paying into OFATMA.

Income inequality is widening in Haiti, which remains among the most unequal countries in the world. The persistence of high levels of inequality is due in part to a concentration of resources in the hands of a small but powerful group of elites, and the weakness or absence of channels of resource redistribution, such as targeted transfers and a social safety net, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Further, the minimum wage for garment workers in Port-au-Prince, the capital, is at least four times lower than the cost of living, according to a 2019 Solidarity Center survey. Since the pandemic, workers no longer work a standard 48-hour workweek, reducing their pay and making them ineligible to receive one day of paid rest per week.

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