Bangladesh garment workers often risk their health and their lives at unsafe factories, and when they seek to form unions to address workplace problems, “factory managers continue to use threats, violent attacks and involuntary dismissals in efforts to stop unions from being registered,” according to a Human Rights Watch report released today.
“I was beaten with metal curtain rods in February when I was pregnant,” one garment worker told HRW. “They wanted to force me to sign on a blank piece of paper, and when I refused, that was when they started beating me. They were threatening me, saying, ‘You need to stop doing the union activities in the factory, why did you try and form the union.’”
Her experience was not unique, according to “Whoever Raises Their Head Suffers the Most: Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories.” HRW also has released a video with garment workers describing the attacks they face when they try to form unions.
Two years after the deadly Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,130 garment workers, the report finds that despite international outrage over the series of mass fatalities at Bangladesh garment factories in recent years, garment workers take great personal risk when trying to improve workplace conditions.
In providing an in-depth look at the experiences of more than 160 workers from 44 factories, the report concludes that “the primary responsibility for protecting the rights of workers rests with the Bangladesh government.
“The poor and abusive working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories are not simply the work of a few rogue factory owners willing to break the law. They are the product of continuing government failures to enforce labor rights, hold violators accountable and ensure that affected workers have access to appropriate remedies.”
Rigorous enforcement of existing law would go a long way toward ending impunity for employers who harass and intimidate both workers and local trade unionists seeking to exercise their right to organize and collectively bargain, according to the report.
“If Bangladesh wants to avoid another Rana Plaza disaster, it needs to effectively enforce its labor law and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal,” says Phil Robertson, HRW’s Asia deputy director.
The report also notes the lack of full financing for the Rana Plaza compensation fund, stating that it “should not be seen as a success or a model unless and until it is replenished and full compensation is paid to claimants.”
Among the report’s recommendations:
- The Bangladesh government should carry out effective and impartial investigations into all workers’ allegations of mistreatment, including beatings, threats and other abuses, and prosecute those responsible.
- The Bangladesh government should revise its labor law to ensure it is in line with international labor standards.
- Companies sourcing from Bangladesh factories should institute regular factory inspections to ensure that factories comply with companies’ codes of conduct and Bangladesh labor law.
HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, James Suzano of ADHRB and James Lynch at Amnesty International spoke at a Capitol Hill Briefing on migrant workers. Credit: Kate Conradt/Solidarity Center
Migrant workers to the Arabian Gulf states are rarely covered by labor law and generally denied the ability to exercise fundamental human rights, including freedom of association, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, said panelists at a standing-room-only Capitol Hill briefing Tuesday.
Migrant workers to countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar endure a “triangle of oppression,” in which they pay steep fees to get a job, generally have their passports taken by employers once they arrive in country and then find they have no legal protection or recourse when they are abused, said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
Whitson, who described the migrant worker experience as “akin to indentured servitude,” was one of four panelists at a Capitol Hill briefing this week, “Modern Day Slavery: Combating Migrant Labor Abuses and Ending Human Trafficking in the Gulf.”
Sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the panel was moderated by Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, who noted the importance of shining “a light on migrant exploitation in the Gulf as part of the broader global fight against human trafficking and forced labor.” Other panelists were James Suzano, ADHRB legal officer, and James Lynch, researcher at Amnesty International London.
The panel was the second of two Capitol Hill events on July 8 highlighting the plight of the 90 million migrants who cross borders every year to work. In the Middle East, some 18.6 million migrant workers toil at jobs such as construction and domestic work.
Panelists repeatedly pointed to the brutality of the employer sponsorship system in Gulf countries “which emboldens employers to mistreat workers,” said Suzano. Known as kafala, the system requires foreign workers to have an employer sponsor, prevents workers from changing jobs without employer approval or judicial authorization, and deports workers who seek new employment or flee abusive conditions. Although most Gulf countries recently have enacted laws to address the abuses inherent in kafala, panelists noted that these laws are not enforced.
Further, said Lynch, it is impossible to “understand the vested interests” that perpetuate employer sponsorship programs in Gulf countries and around the world. Employers benefit from a captive workforce who cannot negotiate for better pay and working conditions—or report abuse to authorities. And often, corruption in governments may mean officials are working with labor recruiters.
Middle Eastern governments refuse to grant citizenship to migrants who have made the country their home for many years, denying them fundamental rights such as the freedom to join unions, bargain collectively and strike, several panelists said. In most Gulf countries, migrant workers comprise the vast majority of the working population, toiling particularly in difficult jobs such as construction and domestic service, yet are not even guaranteed a minimum wage.
As elsewhere around the world, migrants in the region are trafficked for what often turns out to be forced labor. “Human trafficking is much more prevalent than sex trafficking and it needs to be more comprehensively addressed,” said Suzano.
“Ultimately, said Bader-Blau, “the problem of human trafficking in the Gulf is a problem of migrant worker exploitation, and that is a problem of global governance of migration and a problem fundamentally of worker rights and human rights.