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.
In a letter to Cambodia Prime Minister H.E. Hun Sen, the AFL-CIO condemned the Cambodian government’s recent and ongoing violence against garment workers. Calling for an immediate end to the violence and for the release of imprisoned union leaders, the AFL-CIO also is demanding “an independent investigation surrounding the killing and assaults of workers” as well as the withdrawal of legal cases against workers and release of imprisoned union leaders.
On January 2, Cambodian trade union leaders were assaulted and arrested and at least four garment workers killed, with many others injured by security forces at the Canadia Special Economic Zone. Workers have been seeking a higher minimum wage in the garment sector, the nation’s most lucrative industry.
A year ago, 112 garment workers were killed in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory—and a thousand others were injured in the scramble to escape a building with no fire escapes and firmly barred windows.
On April 24, 2012, more than 1,200 garment workers were killed when the multistory Rana Plaza building pancaked in, crushing workers in five factories located in the building.
If these workers, nearly all young women, had been in unions, it’s likely these tragedies could have been prevented.
These disasters—and many more smaller, little-reported workplace tragedies—are why Bangladeshi garment workers are literally organizing for their lives.
Because of the international attention these disasters sparked, workers now can register their unions.
But they are facing intense employer resistance—including physical attacks, threats and termination—and some of these young leaders could benefit from hearing from experienced trade unionists that the fight for a union is worth the struggle.
The workers would be strengthened by international support, knowing they are not alone. To send them a messae of solidarity, please use the sample letter below or write one of your own. Send the completed letter to firstname.lastname@example.org and let these workers know that you stand with them. The Solidarity Center, which has worked for 20 years to help Bangladeshi garment workers gain a voice on the job, will translate and distribute the letter to its union partners, and your message will reach the workers who need to hear it the most.
Dear Sisters and Brothers:
As fellow trade unionists, we are writing in solidarity to commend your bravery and to encourage you to stand together in the face of employer resistance.
Since the tragic Tazreen factory fire in November 2012, you have made great progress in your efforts to organize. Even though ready-made-garment factory owners and the Bangladesh government have placed hurdles and difficulties in your path, you have persevered.
As union members, we know what this struggle is like. We know how hard employers fight to keep the union out, going as far as harassing and firing activists and leaders. Employers will try and turn you against one another.
We know from experience the struggle is worth the difficult journey—the union is the best way for workers to stand up for their rights.
Keep up your amazing effort and find strength in each other. Do not give up! We are with you!
Tahera, 23, has been so ill from the injuries she sustained in the November 24, 2012, Tazreen Fashions factory fire, her husband Roshidul has had to quit his job to take care of her. Now, they have no income to support their family of four.
The blaze, which spread through the multistory factory outside Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, killed 112 workers and injured thousands more. Like nearly all Tazreen survivors, Tahera jumped out of a window to escape the flames because the stairwells were locked.
“I have severe pain in my whole body,” Tahera said, crying. “I don’t feel any strength in my body now. Although one year has been passed, I can’t sleep properly because of fear. I try to forget the memory of the Tazreen’s fire accident, but I can’t. Sometimes it seems to me that I will not live any longer.”
Her physical injuries are severe, as are her mental and psychological suffering. As panicked workers broke windows and ripped open air shafts to escape the building, the electricity went out while the blaze spread. Tahera fell in the melee, and her head and chest were trampled.
“Following the fire accident, Tahera behaved abnormally,” says Roshidul. “She used to try to leave the house all the time, even at night. I used to sleep in front of the door of house so that she could not wander out. Following the accident at Rana Plaza, she used to cry loudly watching those scenes on television and, even one year after the accident, whenever my wife watches any scene of fire on television she becomes so scared she cries.” In the Rana Plaza disaster, more than 1,200 garment workers were killed April 24, 2013, after the multistory building housing five garment factories near Dhaka collapsed.
“Even now, I can’t remember any one’s name, sometimes nothing,” Tahera said.
Tahera and her husband are borrowing from shopkeepers to survive and do not know how they will pay rent for their home in Savar, near Dhaka. “Our present financial condition is very poor, which it was not before the accident,” said Tahera. They have a 14-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, but Tahera says, “I can’t pay the tuition fees of my daughter, I can’t buy milk for my little son and I can’t remember anything.”
Roshidul said nearly all of the money they received for Tahera’s injuries from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Exporting Association (BGMEA) was spent on her medical care. He also used up his savings for her treatment. Now, there is no money left. “I haven’t been able to take her to the doctor or buy medicine for her treatment for the last two months,” he said. Tahera and her husband say families like theirs have been forgotten.
Tahera came to Dhaka nine years ago, hoping to better her life. Now, all she wants is enough support to get medical treatment and ensure her family has a place to live and food to eat.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.