More than 1,000 workers were impacted by the sudden closure, during vacation, of the U.S.-owned Vald’or factory. They did not receive severance pay, as required by law.
In late December 2021, the factory owner sent a text message to workers asking them to return to work on January 6, 2022. Shortly after, workers received a second message telling them not to return, and the factory remained closed.
A month later, workers who lived near the factory witnessed the owner leaving the building with materials. The workers asked the owner what was happening. They were told that the factory was closing due to bankruptcy and a lack of orders.
Workers began demonstrating at the factory that evening and spent the night there. They called the Haitian Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MAST), and the next day, MAST representatives came to the factory along with the factory owner to meet with the workers, where the owner confirmed the factory’s closure.
The workers reached out to leaders of the Association of Textile Workers’ Unions for Re-importation (GOSTTRA), affiliated with the Confederation of Public and Private Sector Workers (CTSP), and Respect for Haitian factory workers (ROHAM), affiliated with Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haitians (CNOHA). GOSTTRA called on workers to meet at MAST’s regional headquarters on February 3 to ask that workers receive the severance pay and benefits owed them. Both unions at the factory, with the support of the Solidarity Center and Worker Rights Consortium, worked with Better Work Haiti, the Association of Industries of Haiti (ADIH), MAST and the government’s Textile Ombudsperson’s Office (BMST) to trace and contact workers, calculate what each worker was owed and inform workers about the distribution process.
PVH Corp, the owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, agreed to cover workers’ severance and pension contributions, totaling $1 million. Severance pay for most workers was the equivalent of a half- or full-year’s wages. A number of women had health insurance claims, which were also covered.
GOSTTRA leadership heralds this victory for the factory workers–and for the entire Haitian labor movement. “What we learned from this experience is that if all the unions could work together, we would be better able to achieve our goals,” they say in a written statement.
Bangladesh garment workers seeking to improve working conditions by forming unions at their factories are frequently verbally or physically abused by their employers, face an unfair and arbitrary government union registration process and are unable to seek justice when their rights are violated. Union organizers and leaders are arrested and jailed for their work, authorities fail to accept complaints or investigate charges, while employers often get away without penalties.
These are the findings by the Solidarity Center and our allies, four years after the deadly Rana Plaza building collapse in which more than 1,130 garment workers died and thousands injured on April 24, 2013.
“If there was a union at Rana Plaza, (the collapse) may not have happened,” says Ronju, a garment worker organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF).
Improvements that Followed Rana Plaza Now Reversing
Safety and health improvements have been made in some factories as a result of the Accord, with dozens of garment factories closed for safety violations and pressing safety issues addressed. But to sustain the progress, workers need the ability to freely form unions to hold employers accountable for safe workplaces.
Although workers were more free to form unions in the first two years after the Rana Plaza tragedy, they increasingly are facing obstacles. Due to an arbitrary union registration process that is vulnerable to employer manipulation, approximately half of workers’ applications for a union have been rejected since 2013. Despite a massive demand from workers for a union after Rana Plaza, there was steep jump in rejections in 2015, according to Solidarity Center data. Over the past year, the rate of rejections in Chittagong has increased sharply.
“After Rana Plaza, we began to get union registration, but the hidden obstacles are still there,” says Asaduzzaman Asad, a BIGUF garment worker union organizer. “There are still many attempts to destroy the unions.”
Union Organizers Arrested under False Charges
Arif, Ronju and Asad, were arrested for their work helping garment workers form unions.
The minimum wage for garment workers is $68 a month, the lowest in Asia and below the World Bank poverty line, with garment workers fueling Bangladesh’s $28 million garment industry, which is the world’s second largest, after China.
The majority of Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers are women. Yet they risk employer harassment on the job and even at their homes, and sometimes are physically attacked and beaten when seeking a union.
In December, thousands of garment workers in the Ashulia factory district went on strike to demand an increase in the minimum wage. The strike began in a factory where two months earlier a young woman collapsed on the job and later died at a hospital. Her employer put her body outside the factory for her family to pick up.
Following the strikes, dozens of union and labor NGO offices were forced to close for over two months, and at least 35 union leaders, workers and activists were arrested on baseless charges. Some face life imprisonment or even death, according to the Solidarity Center legal team in Dhaka. Ronju and Asad are among them.
“The false charges against me are about a political opposition case,” says Ronju. “They put me in this case just to harass us (BIGUF). There is nothing there. The police were instructed by higher authorities to arrest us. BIGUF really works for the workers and that is why we were targeted.”
Since the strikes, union leaders report regular police visits to their offices, vandalism and destruction of union offices, police raids on training programs and activities and continuous police surveillance of union offices.
The crackdown has had a chilling effect on organizing and it is become even harder than it was before to address workers’ concerns, according to Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
Garment workers and workers in other industries in Bangladesh’s export-processing zones are subject to a different, much weaker set of labor laws than workers in the rest of the country, and the government must take steps to reform laws so they meet international standards for freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, said A. K. M. Nasim, senior legal counselor at the Solidarity Center’s office in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. Further, “if we have any half-hearted reform in the legislation, it will mean that the workers will have to continue their struggle for a period of at least a generation to achieve these fundamental rights.”
Speaking at a recent forum in Washington, D.C., Nasim gave an overview of the current labor rights environment for Bangladeshis and provided key recommendations for improving their wages and working conditions.
Some 377,600 workers, the vast majority women, work in eight export-processing zones (EPZs) throughout the country.
Bangladesh derives 20 percent of its income from exports created in the EPZs, which are industrial areas that offer special incentives to foreign investors like low taxes, lax environmental regulations and low labor costs.
Yet while workers outside the EPZs are permitted to form trade unions, EPZ workers must form weaker workers’ welfare associations. Even though the associations have the right to bargain and negotiate agreements with employers, in practice, employers do not let the workers form their associations easily. Leaders of workers’ associations who actively promote the interests of the employees “have been fired from their jobs,” Nasim said. “As a result, most of the workers’ associations in the EPZs remain in existence only on paper.”
Nasim discussed the decision last June by the U.S. government to suspend Bangladesh’s trade benefits based on the country’s chronic and severe labor rights violations. The United States suspended its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) agreement with Bangladesh after 112 workers were killed in a 2012 fire at the Tazreen garment factory, and more than 1,100 died last April when the Rana Plaza building collapsed. Since the GSP suspension, the Bangladesh government has allowed some 100 unions to register, in contrast with the few unions recognized prior to last year.
The Rana Plaza disaster also led to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year binding agreement between international labor organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and retailers in the textile industry to maintain minimum safety standards. The tragedies also have generated an increase in NGO involvement, and Nasim urged the NGOs working to improve workplace safety and health to support workers in forming and running unions, and making sure they are sustainable in the long run.
Also speaking at the forum, Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan showed how the economic and political intersect in the Bangladesh context as described by Nasim.
“Bangladesh is a crucible for the intersection of globalization, the government’s economic policies, how these impact on the development of a democratic culture in civil society, and equitable and just economic growth that benefits workers and their families,” Ryan said. “A voice for workers in this process is absolutely crucial for growing democracy and democratic organizations in Bangladesh.”
The forum, “Strengthening Democratic Practices in Bangladesh: Empowering Workers in Export Processing Zones,” was sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy and included Zerxes Spencer from the International Forum for Democratic Studies as moderator.
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