As Nepal rebuilds two years after a major earthquake killed thousands of people and displaced millions, the country has an opportunity to achieve more equitable economic development by laying the foundation for an environment that fosters good jobs that sustain long-term growth, according to a report launched today.
Years before the April 24, 2015, earthquake, workers in Nepal found it increasingly necessary to migrate for good jobs. Between 2008–09 and 2014–5, the number of annual registered migrants from Nepal more than doubled—from fewer than 220,000 to nearly half a million. Most workers migrate for jobs in low-wage sectors on short-term visas tied to a specific employer, often paying high recruitment fees. They often are unpaid, receive few benefits, suffer from injuries and disproportionate death rates, and are vulnerable to human trafficking.
“The primary reason for out-migration is the condition of Nepal’s labor market, which offers few decent work just job opportunities,” according to the report.
Facilitating Labor Migration Is an Unstainable Economic Model
The country’s dependence on the remittances sent home by migrant workers has skyrocketed to the equivalent of 32.1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, up from 11.2 percent in 2004—an unproductive model for the country’s long-term economic development, according to the report.
“Addressing the absence of decent jobs in Nepal by facilitating labor migration is unsustainable and ignores the contributions that workers can make to the rebuilding of their country,” said Timothy Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia regional program director.
“If Nepal is to transform its economy and create decent jobs for its people, workers—including migrant workers who have gained skills and experience abroad—must be at the center of the process.”
The report recommends developing innovative policy tools to harness the productive potential of migrant workers’ talents and resources for job creation in communities of origin.
Crucially, it highlights the importance of all levels of government “committing to the creation of jobs that reflect the pillars of the decent work agenda, including conditions of freedom, equality, security and dignity; fair wages; and social protection for workers and their families while also offering workers fair remuneration and scope for economic mobility.” Workers’ ability to freely form unions to have a voice in the job-creation process and beyond must be a fundamental element of a successful and sustainable reconstruction effort.
Mohammad Ronju, a long-time organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) that has helped thousands of workers in 36 factories form unions, was one of the more than 35 people arrested in the December crackdown. On December 27, police entered the BIGUF office in Gazipur, arrested Ronju and later charged him in a January 2015 political opposition explosive substances case, in which he had no involvement. The case carries a sentence of three to twenty years in prison.
After being denied bail repeatedly, Ronju was eventually granted bail and was released on February 16, 2017, after spending over 50 days in jail. The case is still pending.
I grew up in Dinajpur (northern Bangladesh) and then moved to Dhaka to live with my aunt when I was 8 years old. As I got a little older, I knew I needed to do something to earn money so I got a job in a garment factory.
“At the age of 12 or 13 years old, I started working in a factory in Dhaka as a helper in the finishing section making 600 taka a month ($7.40).
“In 2006, I began working in a different factory in Gazipur where some of my co-workers first introduced me to BIGUF when there was a problem with unpaid wages. About 25 of us went to the federation office, and they worked with us to resolve the problem.
“Sometime later in 2011, when I worked in another factory, I tried to organize a union but I was fired. Another worker and I led the effort to sign up workers for the union and submitted an application for registration to the government. I was terminated for union activity but BIGUF fought to get me reinstated in the factory. However, management later brought armed men into the factory to force me to leave my job and move from the area for good. They also went to my home and threatened my family.
“I left that factory and became a union organizer with BIGUF. I’m doing this because I was an abused worker and I want to do something for other workers. A union is the road to worker rights.”
With Union, Rana Plaza Disaster Would Not Have Happened
“Since Rana Plaza, workers are now able to formally have their unions registered (by the government; a legal requirement) where they were not able to before. Workers are now more familiar about what trade unions are and what they do. Workers are also more aware of their safety. If there was a union at Rana Plaza, (the collapse) may not have happened. Union leaders could have talked with the owners about the problems there, and maybe so many workers would not have lost their lives. Maybe the leaders would have been harassed by the management, but so many workers would not have died.”
No Food, No Bed in Prison
“On December 27, I was at our BIGUF office in Gazipur when several police entered. They began reading a list of names of people that they were looking for and read my name. They arrested me and took me away in their car. I asked them what was my (reason for being arrested). They told me that there was no case against me but that they had received instructions to arrest me, so that is what they did.
“They brought me to a police station. I didn’t want to get in touch with my family because I didn’t want to worry them. Two days passed and I didn’t know what was going on. In lock-up we weren’t allowed anything—no shoes, no bed. I slept on the floor. The police didn’t feed me but some of the other prisoners shared their food. Eventually, they transferred me to the main jail where one of the officers at the gate used bad language with me.
“I was in jail for one month and 19 days. The first week in jail was really tense. I knew BIGUF would help me but I have a family and wasn’t sure how they would handle the situation. I also had communication with lots of factory workers and wasn’t sure what would happen to them. But after I was able to establish communication with everyone outside, I felt lighter.”
‘Police Instructed by Higher Authorities to Arrest Us’
“Asad and Arif (two other BIGUF organizers arrested in Gazipur several days before Ronju) were also with me in jail. Asad and I slept in the same place, and Arif slept in a different place. Every morning we had to wake up at 5 a.m. and kneel on the ground so that the guards could count the prisoners. This would happen several times a day. The authorities would provide little and very low-quality food. No one could eat the vegetables and the small amount of rice provided was full of insects. But BIGUF arranged other, better quality food and items like blankets and plates to help us inside the jail.
“The false charges against me are about a political opposition case [and explosives?]. 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.
“I have a wife and an 11-year-old son. I have received some pressure from my family, but I cannot leave my organization. This work is in my blood. We have not made any mistakes but we are harassed. We hope for the case to be withdrawn so we can again work more openly with the workers again.
“Although I’m on bail, because I have a case pending against me I still have to appear in court one day a month. The case is such that I cannot miss a hearing or I will be arrested and put in jail again.”
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.
As we approach April 24, the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,130 garment workers and severely injured thousands more, the Solidarity Center is posting first-person stories of three garment worker union organizers who were deeply involved in the aftermath of Rana Plaza and who were arrested in December on baseless and dangerous charges, following wage strikes in the Ashulia garment district.
Asaduzzaman Asad (Asad), a long-time organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) that has helped thousands of workers in 36 factories form unions, was one of the more than 35 people arrested in the December crackdown. Police took him from his home on December 22 and later charged him with involvement in a January 2015 political opposition violence case involving a bus burning in which he had no involvement. The case carries punishment of death or up to life imprisonment.
After being denied bail repeatedly, the high court eventually granted Asad bail. He was released on February 27 after spending 68 days in jail. The case is still pending.
Asad, who has helped thousands of garment workers form unions, now faces trumped up charges as part of a government crackdown on union activity.
“I’m originally from Ranjpur (northern Bangladesh). My father died when I was 13 years old, and our financial condition was so bad that I had to stop my education. When I was around 15, I needed to work so I came to Dhaka, and then when I was around 17 or 18, I started working in a garment factory making 500 taka ($6.16) a month. I was the youngest of eight children. I can still remember before my mother died that she needed 10,000 taka ($125) for a gallbladder operation but I couldn’t arrange it.
“I first got involved with BIGUF around 1994 or 1995. Some of the workers in the garment factory I was working in then would go to BIGUF so I would go with them.
“When I used to visit BIGUF office at that time, I would always sing and people loved it. We had a good environment.
“Around 1997 or 1998, Solidarity Center had a two-month internship program (for garment workers) that I participated in. Because I went through the internship program, I was able to begin conducting Friday seminars for other workers on labor law, union organizing, and so on at the BIGUF office.
“I love this work even though I know there’s a lot of risk. I get lots of enjoyment when I work with the people. I put myself in the position of the worker. I see people coming from the villages and they are coming from a very poor background.
Face-to-Face with Death at Rana Plaza
“After the collapse of Rana Plaza, I went to the site and worked there for 14 days. I helped on the medical team and went to the field where the dead bodies were kept. The feelings I had after going to that area cannot be expressed. I did lots of interviews with the workers there and attended some of the meetings when the Solidarity Center filed a legal case about the incident.* When I saw the people grieving, the people mourning, I could not think about myself.
“After Rana Plaza, we began to get union registration, but the hidden obstacles are still there. There are still many attempts to destroy the unions.
Arrested after Garment Worker Strikes
“Arif (another BIGUF organizer) and I live together above the BIGUF office in Gazipur. On December 22, the police came to our room. We told the police we have no work in Ashulia, but they didn’t allow us to talk. They handcuffed us and took us away in their car. They took us to the detective branch office and asked us questions about BIGUF. After a while, the police told us to be quiet while they waited for instructions. On December 24, we were sent to the police station and then from there to the jail. At the jail, we learned about that we were being charged with: a vandalizing case but we not told what type of vandalizing case.
We were confident that we would get bail because we had nothing to do with the case. But we felt bad when we learned we were arrested because (high government officials ordered his arrest). We felt sad about what would happen. If police want to file a false case against us, there’s nothing we can do. Our whole life will be spoiled. We found one person who was charged in the same case as us and he will be in jail for between 10 and 12 years.
If this case doesn’t get dropped against us as soon as possible, it will be a problem. Our names need to be dropped from the charge sheets based on the final police report finding that we don’t have anything to do with this incident. We were not named in the case.
When I was first arrested, I didn’t want to tell my wife. Finally, I called her, but told her not to share with others what happened because rumors would spread quickly. However, people came to know. But my wife also used to work in a garment factory and she was one of us. Naturally, she was sad and she was alone. My sisters cried a lot.
I have been involved with several big campaigns with BIGUF, but when I first came from the village to Dhaka I was nothing. After I did the Solidarity Center internship program, I had the opportunity to be with the people, be with my brothers and sisters. I’ve gone to factories to help workers after fires, I went to Rana Plaza. I’m proud of all these things.
* The Solidarity Center worked with Bangladesh lawyers to file a civil case on behalf of the family of one worker killed in the incident. The first-of-its-kind lawsuit sought just compensation for the irreparable loss of the family’s husband, father and chief breadwinner.
Mohammad Golam Arif, a long-time organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) that has helped thousands of workers in 36 factories form unions, was one of the more than 35 people arrested in the December crackdown. Police took him from his home on December 22 and later charged him with involvement in a January 2015 political opposition violence case involving a bus burning in which he had no involvement. The case carries punishment of death or up to life imprisonment.
After being denied bail repeatedly, the high court eventually granted Arif bail. He was released on February 27 after spending 68 days in jail. The case is still pending.
Arif was among more than two dozen garment worker union organizers arrested for his union work.
“I got my first job as a garment worker in Mirpur (an area in Dhaka) in 1993 when I was 12 years old, making 300 taka ($3.60) a month as a thread cutter. My father told me he was going to bring me from the village to Dhaka so I could become a motor mechanic, but I missed the opportunity and started at a factory instead.
“The next year I changed factories, where there was one worker involved with a trade union and an active leader of BIGUF. He brought me to the inauguration program of BIGU (predecessor to BIGUF) in December of 1994. Management later terminated 22 workers in that factory for union organizing, and I moved on to another factory. But eventually I went back to this factory and helped organize a union there with the help of BIGU.
“In 1997, BIGUF got registered as a federation and my factory was one of the first six BIGUF-affiliated unions. I was general secretary of the union. Twice I was beaten by management (because of union activity).
“I started working in a garment factory again where I tried to organize another union. All workers united with BIGUF but management closed down the factory.
“After that, I started helping out with Solidarity Center’s fire safety program for garment workers at that time. I was a fire safety educator.
‘Instructions from a Higher Authority to Arrest Us’ “A lot has changed since Rana Plaza. And that’s one reason I began working full-time as an organizer for BIGUF. BIGUF is not politically affiliated. We actively work with the workers.
“When we were arrested (in December), we were physically and mentally worried but we knew we didn’t do anything. I am married with a five-and-a-half-year-old son. My wife learned that I was arrested after six days and my parents after one month. My mother was very worried but my father was strong since he knew I didn’t do anything.
“This kind of incident has happened in the past (arrests of activists) but this time it is also different. They are trying to destroy us by linking us to the (political) opposition parties.
“If they thought we had something to do with this, why didn’t they involve us in a garment case? They only told us after they arrested us that they had instructions from a higher authority that they had to arrest us.
“Initially, when we were arrested the workers couldn’t understand what had happened but they came to support us. Union leaders came to visit us in jail. When we are in danger, union leaders extend their support.”
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