On a recent Friday, the only day off for Bangladesh garment workers—if they get a day off—I went to visit workers at their homes to better understand how the people who stitch our clothes live their lives. Walking through the puzzling narrow alleys, I entered a tin shed-like building. A corridor tore through the center and on each side were rooms for families. It was in one of these dimly lit rooms where I met Konika, who worked as a sewing operator in a nearby garment factory in Gazipur. In the tiny space where she lived with two children and her husband, she revealed the conditions at her workplace.
A garment factory in Gazipur. Credit: Solidarity Center/Istiak Ahmed Inam
“We are under intense pressure to meet the target production,” she says. “I used to produce 70 pieces an hour but now, after our minimum wage has been increased by the government, I must produce 90 pieces. I have to think twice if I want to use the washroom. What if I miss my deadline? What if my production manager sees me? I rest only if there’s a problem with my machine and am lucky if the mechanic is not close by.”
Worker Safety under Threat Again
Six years after the deadly April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,134 garment workers and injured hundreds more, the government is on the verge of rolling back international safety inspections even as employers and the government are blocking workers’ ability to exercise their right to form unions to improve working conditions.
Disasters like Rana Plaza or the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire, which together killed more than 112 garment workers, prompted global outrage and mobilized workers in protest of unsafe and deadly working conditions, forcing major fashion brands and Bangladesh suppliers to address safety issues. As a result, unions, suppliers and many international brands formed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a binding agreement that helped make many garment factories safer. Despite its success, however, the accord may be dismantled, leaving workers at the mercy of a system unprepared to improve factory safety, according to a recent report.
Meanwhile, fashion companies often send their own inspection teams to factories, but the effectiveness of these visits is debatable.
“Our managers make us tell the foreigners [safety inspectors] we don’t work until 10 p.m., that we receive our wages regularly and we even receive our doctor’s fees. None of this is true,” says Konika. On many occasions, the inspection team strolls around the factory, only gathering data from factory management and not from the workers, thus releasing inaccurate reports.
Konika and her co-workers face odds that would dishearten many: factory owners escalating pressure to produce and depriving workers of their basic rights, and corporations wearing a mask of “doing all they can” for workers, while in fact, doing nothing.
Yet Konika, on her day off, enjoys time with her family, despite recognizing the injustices she is likely to face tomorrow.
An independent,12-month monitoring program by a coalition of worker rights advocates in Kyrgyzstan found that the lives and safety of working people are at significantly higher risk than official data indicates—requiring urgent changes to the country’s occupational safety and health (OSH) monitoring system.
“I am asking government to take OSH issues into consideration because they envelop the lives of our workers,” said Eldiyar Karachalov, deputy president of the Kyrgyz union representing construction workers, at a roundtable briefing last month.
The event—which convened worker rights advocates, lawmakers, government administrators and employers for discussions on worker safety—highlighted data collected in 2018 by monitors from Kyrgyz metallurgy and mining, construction, garment and food processing unions and local NGOs Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan and the Insan Leilek Foundation.
According to official labor inspection statistics, 3,808 OSH violations and incidents occurred in 2018. However, the unions’ independent monitoring program found 500 previously unreported OSH violations and incidents—including 155 injuries and 15 deaths. Because most of the unreported OSH incidents occurred in informal-sector workplaces, unions are requesting that the country’s labor monitoring system be expanded into that sector. More than 70 percent of Kyrgyz workers are informal and so have little protection by trade unions or labor laws.
The entity with legal jurisdiction over Kyrgyzstan’s safety inspection system, StateEcoTechInspection, reports limited ability to collect data due to scarce resources. Since 2012, the number of full-time labor inspectors in Kyrgyzstan has fallen from 62 to 23.
“It is absolutely necessary to enlarge the labor inspection authorities and staff,” said Karachalov.
The unions and their NGO partners hope to present their data and recommendations to Parliament during an upcoming hearing on OSH reform. Union recommendations will include a call for adequate funding, an increase in the number of labor inspectors, better training of inspectors, employer-funded safety training for workers and employer-provided personal protective equipment for workers.
According to International Labor Organization (ILO) data, some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year, including 340 million victims of occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses. The ILO reports 11,0000 fatal occupational accidents annually in the 12-member states comprising the Commonwealth of Independent States—Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine—but points to “gross underreporting” of occupational accidents and diseases in the region.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the region’s poorest countries. Although the official unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, more than 1 million Kyrgyz nationals are estimated to be working abroad, particularly in Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan, where wages are higher but conditions for migrant workers can be dire. In Kyrgyzstan, the Solidarity Center aims to strengthen union representation to protect workplace safety and health and secure protections for Kyrgyz workers who migrate for jobs.
When Joe Montisetse came to South Africa from Botswana to work in gold mines in the early 1980s, he saw a black pool of water deep in a mine that signified deadly methane. Yet after he brought up the issue to supervisors, they insisted he continue working. Montisetse refused.
Two co-workers were killed a few hours later when the methane exploded.
Millions of jobs around the world do not offer safe and healthy workplaces—nor do they provide wages that enable workers to support themselves and their families or social protections and the sense of dignity that allow workers to enjoy the benefits of their own hard work.
To highlight the lack of decent work, each year on October 7, unions and their allies mark World Day for Decent Work. This year, they are calling for minimum wage-floors sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living and the right of all workers to join a union and bargain collectively.
Today, Montisetse is newly elected president of the National Union of Mineworkers, a position he achieved after helping form a local union at the gold mine soon after his co-workers’ deaths. After they formed the union, workers were safer, he says.
“We formed a union as mine workers to defend against oppression and exploitation.”
This year, the 10th anniversary of the World Day for Decent Work, workers like Montisete highlight the importance of the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively—fundamental human rights that enable workers to achieve decent work by joining together and successfully challenging global corporate practices that too often, risk lives and livelihoods.
Georgia’s new workplace safety and health law is a step forward but does not include sufficient enforcement mechanisms and only covers workers in a few industries, according to the Georgia Trade Union Confederation (GTUC).
“What Georgia’s workers desperately need are laws to force employers to take their safety seriously, and hold them criminally responsible when they do not,” says GTUC Vice President Raisa Liparteliani. For the current labor laws to have any effect, “we first need an inspection department with the clout to back them up,” she says.
Some 455 workers died and 793 were injured on the job between 2007 and 2017, according to the GTUC, using data from the Georgia Ministry of Internal Affairs. Already this year, 12 workers have died. These figures do not include workers who have died or were injured because of occupational illnesses like black lung disease, a common and often fatal workplace hazard for miners, or other on-the-job injuries that manifest after the immediate incident. Also, according to the GTUC, some industrial accidents are not reported in part because employers threaten or blackmail workers into remaining silent.
The law, in effect March 21, covers only workers in high risk, hazardous and dangerous work, and stipulates that workplaces may be inspected only at the invitation of the owner, who must be given at least five days notice.
“The law does not provide regulations that create an efficient, fully fledged labor inspection system in compliance with the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on labor inspection (Convention 81), in which inspectors have unlimited, free access to all public and private workplaces without the permission of employers or other officials,” according to the GTUC.
Restoring Labor Rights
Under a previous government, Georgia’s labor laws in 2006 were replaced with a labor code focused on the rights of employers. A new government in 2015 created a labor inspection department in line to meet the requirements of an Association Agreement with the European Union. Yet since then, says Liparteliani, the number of people dying and being injured in the workplace has instead increased.
A major shortcoming of the new labor inspection department is that it says “nothing of other areas of labor rights,” she says.
“Labor rights are inseparable from safety issues; a vast majority of workplace accidents occur due to physical fatigue, which is understandable when workers can’t take holidays, can’t take days off when they’re ill, and are forced to work extra hours.”
As it works to establish a labor inspection system in compliance with ILO standards, the GTUC plans to bring the issue to the Tripartite Social Partnership Commission that oversees the European Union-Georgia Association Agreement.
Five years is a lifetime in the fashion industry. The fast fashion cycle demands quicker and quicker turnarounds, sometimes in months or even weeks. This puts downward pressure on suppliers in terms of prices for the goods they produce and increases demands on workers, usually to work more for less. The last five years in the Bangladesh garment industry have been particularly dizzying, following the deadly November 24, 2012, Tazreen Fashions fire—and the Rana Plaza collapse six months after—that impelled intense, though not-quite permanent changes.
For workers and their unions, some changes have been historic and empowering. In an unprecedented burst of organizing in 40 years of the garment industry in Bangladesh, more than 400 unions recruited 90,000 new members. Now, however, we are seeing the government’s and industry’s reactions to that empowerment. Their dismissive attitude toward workers, their rights and their role in a booming sector runs the risk of harming not only Bangladesh garment workers but the very trade deals that make the country’s garment and textile sector its economic engine.
The young women union leaders of Bangladesh have surged forward against difficult odds, and the scars of the Tazreen factory fire that killed 112 garment workers are still raw. Many workers who were badly injured in the disaster, as documented by the Solidarity Center, are still unable to work. And the unions that workers continue to organize are facing an uphill battle for recognition, dignity and rights at work.
In 2012, prior to Tazreen, 12 unions applied for registration, a government requirement, and only one received it. Following Tazreen and with the world focused on how our clothes are made, 157 unions applied for registration and 84 were registered in 2013. Through their unions, the mostly woman workforce learned fire safety, gained maternity benefits and even improved their wages. But a backlash began to set in by 2015. Intimidated by employers determined to limit organizations that would represent worker interests, workers formed fewer unions.
Last December widespread labor unrest over poor wages in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka, led to hundreds of fired workers, police repression and trumped-up legal charges against worker rights activists. In response many Western clothing brands boycotted the annual high-profile “garment summit” in February, organized by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). In the spring the European Union (EU) held a first-ever meeting in Dhaka to discuss Bangladesh’s ill-treatment of workers and disregard for freedom of association in light of the garment industry’s preferential trade status. Still not getting the message, the Bangladesh police surveilled union activists, temporarily shut down union offices and raided worker education programs supported by the U.S. government, while ignoring coordinated attacks, verbal and otherwise, on labor organizers.
The events of the past year are building to a moment of truth for the government of Bangladesh and its garment sector. Bangladesh lost its preferential tariff benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) in 2013, when the U.S. Trade Representative suspended it from the program. The EU has a similar tariff program and has demanded significant changes, to be unveiled this month, in Bangladesh’s labor law and practice in order to keep those benefits.
In a new white paper, the Clean Clothes Campaign, European Trade Union Confederation, International Trade Union Confederation and the IndustriALL and UNI global unions provide clear evidence that, despite signing a sustainability compact with the EU a year after the Tazreen fire, Bangladesh remains in violation of the deal. In the compact, the government pledged to reform labor laws, implement freedom of association in export-processing zones, improve union registration and curtail anti-union discrimination.
International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow says, “The government of Bangladesh is consistently failing to meet its obligations under international law to protect workers’ rights. The result is continued exploitation and poverty wages for workers in the garment industry. An EU investigation would help break the stranglehold that factory owners in Bangladesh have over the parliament and government, and would provide vital support for workers and their families.”
The EU has an important choice to make: whether to accept more empty promises from the Bangladesh government or institute a review of GSP trade benefits, the report’s authors say.
“Despite promises made, it is still extremely difficult for workers in Bangladesh to exercise their fundamental labor rights,” says Jenny Holdcroft, IndustriALL assistant general secretary. “The continued failure of the Bangladeshi government to take the necessary action to protect workers’ rights is ample reason for the EU to launch the much-needed trade investigation.” Bangladesh’s powerful employers and government have demonstrated little interest in changing the status quo, but a day of reckoning may be upon them. They can grant workers the respect and rights they deserve, or they can risk their flagship industry and economy. After five years, garment workers familiar with fast fashion are counting on eventual justice.
This is a crosspost from Thompson-Reuters.