Bangladesh shrimp industry owners, management officials and labor and human rights activists discussed and debated the dispute resolution process in the country’s shrimp industry at a recent workshop organized by the Solidarity Center, the Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association (BFFEA) and Bangladesh Shrimp and Fish Foundation (BSFF).
The alternative dispute resolution process was instigated in 2013 when BFFEA, BSFF and the Solidarity Center signed a groundbreaking memorandum of agreement (MoA).
Under the MoA, shrimp industry owners and managers agreed to implement worker rights according to Bangladesh labor law and International Labor Organization (ILO) core labor standards and to give the nearly 1 million shrimp workers who toil during peak season across the supply chain the right to form trade unions.
Among the participants, who included production managers, compliance officers and managing directors, BFFEA Senior Vice President Golam Mostafa said he hoped the dispute resolution mechanism in the shrimp industry would be an example other industries will follow. Solidarity Center-Bangladesh’s MoA project consultant and former secretary of Bangladesh government AKM Zafar Ullah Khan said that alternative dispute resolution and participation committee is important for a sustainable shrimp sector.
Solidarity Center’s Bangladesh staff also addressed questions about pending cases, worker compensation and the overall process.
Alonzo Suson, Solidarity Center Bangladesh country program director, stressed the need for promotion, outreach and education to make workers aware of the alternative dispute resolution process. Suson praised the MoA and said he had heard that labor-management relationships were improving because of the joint initiative.
The Solidarity Center began working with Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations in 2005 to look at ways to ensure the rights of shrimp workers are protected at the workplace. In 2012, the Solidarity Center issued its second in-depth report on the issue, “The Plight of Shrimp-Processing Workers of Southwestern Bangladesh.”
Mukta, who works in a shrimp factory in Khulna, Bangladesh, makes $50 per month but that wage is not enough to support his family.
“Although employers should raise wages every year according to the law, they don’t follow the rules,” he said. “I have worked in my factory for nine years and my salary has increased only once.”
Mukta joined a meeting on the wages in the shrimp and fish processing industry with representatives from labor, business and civil society last week. Organized by the Solidarity Center and Social Activities for the Environment (SAFE), the event in Dhaka, the capital, featured Md. Mujibul Haque Chunnu, state minister at the Ministry of Labor and Employment.
The government recently directed the Minimum Wage Board to reassess the minimum wage for workers in the shrimp and fish processing sector. The board, established in 2009, has not revisited the wage level since then.
“It has been five years since the minimum wage was reviewed in the sector,” said Solidarity Center Bangladesh Country Program Director Alonzo Suson. “Now is the time to move toward a new consensus for a living wage for workers in the shrimp industry. A new minimum wage level will not only benefit the workers but the entire community and can make good business sense for a more productive sector.”
Representatives from SAFE, the Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association (BFFEA) and an academic from Rajshahi University presented their analyses and recommendations based on current conditions and wage levels in the sector. Participant, including union leaders, members of parliament, employers and nongovernmental organizations, then engaged in a vigorous discussion.
Shaheen Anam, executive director of the Manusher Jonno Foundation, a human rights foundation that helped support the event along with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), noted the improved working conditions in the shrimp and fish processing sector which resulted from the work of “labor activists over the last several years.” But Anam pointed out that “these activists have faced a lot of threats … especially in the Khulna region.”
In 2013, the BFFEA, the Bangladesh Shrimp and Fish Foundation (BSFF) and the Solidarity Center signed a memorandum of agreement to implement worker rights according to Bangladesh labor law and International Labor Organization (ILO) core labor standards and to give workers the right to form trade unions.
In Bangladesh, shrimp industry leaders—at the urging of workers and human rights groups—have taken a step toward improving working conditions for the nearly 1 million shrimp workers who toil during peak season across the supply chain.
The Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association (BFFEA), the Bangladesh Shrimp and Fish Foundation (BSFF) and the Solidarity Center signed a memorandum of agreement (MoA) March 24 to implement worker rights according to Bangladesh labor law and International Labor Organization (ILO) core labor standards and to give workers the right to form trade unions.
The BFFEA, BSFF and Solidarity Center signed a memorandum of agreement to improve working conditions in the shrimp industry. Photo: Solidarity Center
The agreement creates a joint committee with two members each from the BFFEA, BSFF and Solidarity Center. The committee will oversee workplace surveys, including an analysis of contract workers, to determine next steps for ensuring their working conditions meet Bangladesh’s 2006 labor law. The law stipulates that workers must be paid at least the minimum wage and receive sick leave and vacation pay. It prohibits children under age 18 from working and provides maternity leave after six months on the job.
“Today’s MoA concretely demonstrates the resolve of Bangladeshi government, business sector and workers to ensure protection of workers’ rights and workplace safety,” said Dan Mozena, U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, who was among guests at the signing ceremony. Government officials taking part included representatives of the Bangladesh Ministries of Commerce; Fisheries and Livestock; Labor and Employment; and Foreign Affairs.
Bangladesh is the sixth-largest aquaculture producer in the world. A January 2012 Solidarity Center report found that “the predominantly female, low-income and largely uneducated workforce employed by major shrimp processors in the southwestern region of Bangladesh faces inadequate safety and health protections, receives near slave (or no) wages and has nowhere to turn for assistance.” Many of these workers, who toil long hours in often inhumane conditions, do not receive the workplace protections they are guaranteed under the 2006 Bangladesh Labor Act, a law directed at improving working conditions in fish and processing plants.
“Our previous experience says that the owners promise many things for workers, but the management staff who implement the owners’ decisions do not treat workers well,” said Khadija, a permanent worker at a shrimp processing factory in Khulna. “But we hope that the new relationship will bring changes for the workers.”
Referring to the many contract workers in the shrimp industry, BFFEA President Amin Ullah said, “Due to shortage of raw materials and seasonal business, we are unable to employ them permanently and it is also not feasible. But under the MoA, we shall try are best to ensure labor rights and privilege of contract workers also.”
The Solidarity Center began working with Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations in 2005 to look at ways to ensure the rights of shrimp workers are protected at the workplace. In 2008, the Solidarity Center issued its first major report on the issue, “The True Cost of Shrimp.”
Bangladesh’s labor code addresses pay, working hours, and on-the-job conditions. However, in the shrimp-processing industry, the code is not being adequately enforced. Bangladeshi shrimp-processing workers—the majority of whom are women—still face inadequate health and safety protections at work and receive less than the minimum wage, among other violations of their rights.
Bangladesh’s longstanding abuse of worker rights, failure to enforce labor laws, and increasing violence against labor activists, including threats and murder, were the focus of a human rights hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill, where a senior Solidarity Center staffer and other regional and rights experts provided testimony.
Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia Regional Program Director, told members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that Bangladeshis toil at some of the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs in Asia. Despite a labor code that addresses pay, working hours, and on-the-job conditions, many Bangladeshi workers still face inadequate health and safety protections at work and receive less than the minimum wage, among other violations of their rights.
Because their attempts to organize have been thwarted, Ryan said, workers have no channel through which to voice their grievances and negotiate with management in order to improve their rights and working conditions. Strikes and worker actions are their only weapons in the fight for decent jobs that can support them and their families.
“Over the past three years, hundreds of garment workers have been injured, and some killed, in clashes with police while demonstrating or on strike for worker rights, most often higher wages,” said Ryan, who has been involved with worker rights in Bangladesh for the past 15 years. “Several prominent labor activists have been arrested and taken to trial on trumped-up charges associated with these demonstrations.”
Ryan cited the most recent, egregious example of violence against labor activists—the murder in early April of Aminul Islam, an organizer for the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) whose body bearing signs of torture was found more than 60 miles away from where he had disappeared four days earlier. Aminul was a longtime friend and colleague of the Solidarity Center.
“Aminul trained, recruited, and organized workers in the RMG sector and the export processing zones,” said Ryan. “Due to his activities, Aminul was threatened by gangsters working for garment factory owners, was continuously under police surveillance, and was detained and beaten by the National Security Intelligence in June 2010. False criminal charges were filed against Aminul along with his colleagues in BGIWF and the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity for supposedly causing unrest during the minimum wage campaign by garment workers during the summer of 2010.”
Ryan said that although Bangladesh authorities are following up, observers in-country and throughout the world are concerned that no credible, transparent, and accountable investigation of the murder will actually take place. During a May visit to Bangladesh, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that an independent investigation would be “a real test for the government and for the society to make sure you don’t say that anyone can have impunity.”
Ryan cited some “incremental” progress in achieving worker rights. For example, he said, child labor has been all but eliminated in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) factories, but more than 7 million children still work in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, domestic service, and the hotel and restaurant industry. According to Solidarity Center reports published in 2008 and 2012 child labor persists in shrimp- and seafood-processing plants.
Ryan offered several recommendations for improving worker rights in Bangladesh:
- National and global worker and human rights organizations must continue to press for real freedom of association in Bangladesh.
- The Bangladesh business community must recognize that its actions to repress workers have consequences, in terms of not only impoverishing its own workforce, but also injuring the industry’s reputation in the eyes of other governments and the Western brands upon which they depend for business.
- The Bangladesh government must live up to its obligation as a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to protect and promote fundamental worker rights and should face punitive action by the ILO Governing Body if it fails to do so.
“The Bangladesh government has choices about development policy and how to best bring its people out of poverty,” Ryan concluded. “The strikes, violence, and continuing worker dissatisfaction with the status quo demonstrate that the low-wage, low-rights model is not its best option—and U.S. government, ILO, and NGO pressure can help the government to change course and support its workers as they attempt to better their own lives.”
Ryan shared the podium with Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Eric Biel, Acting Associate Deputy Undersecretary, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor; and John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch. The commission is named in honor of the late Rep. Thomas Peter Lantos (D-CA), who co-founded and co-chaired its predecessor, the Human Rights Caucus. Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in the U.S. Congress, from 1980 until his death in 2008.