Bangladesh Garment Employers Retailate Against Workers

Bangladesh Garment Employers Retailate Against Workers

Tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers waged weeks-long strikes in December and January to protest low wages and unequal pay increases—and now workers say factory employers are using the walkouts to further repress their efforts to form unions and collectively bargain better wages and working conditions.

More than 11,000 garment workers have lost their jobs or faced repression as a result of the wage protests, and employers and the police have filed cases against more than 3,000 workers, according to the global union IndustriALL. Many workers fired say they were not involved in the protests.

During the walkouts, police used tear gas, water cannons, batons and rubber bullets, reportedly injuring dozens of workers and killing 22-year-old Sumon Mia, a worker at Anlima Textile in Savar, who was shot dead on his way back to work from lunch.

Billboards with names and photographs of terminated workers have been posted at some factories as an intimidation tactic, and union leaders say factory management is exploiting the walkouts to target and blacklist them from employment in the sector.

Factory walkouts began the second week of December, when mostly nonunion garment workers from roughly 350 factories in Gazipur, Ashulia and Narayanganj protested the elimination of the 5 percent annual wage increase for 2018 and a basic wage increase applied unequally to workers with various skill levels.

Recent Repression of Worker Rights Part of Longer Trend

Following the deaths of more than 1,200 garment workers in the 2012 fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, workers vigorously organized to form unions and negotiate contracts, as the Bangladesh government and ready-made garment (RMG) employers responded to international pressure to improve safety and wages.

But in recent years, employer harassment—including physical attacks and threatening home visits—and government resistance to workers seeking to register unions have meant even fewer workers can join together to collectively improve their workplaces. As recently as November 2018, two union organizers were brutally attacked by men associated with factory management, according to union leaders.

At the same time, Bangladesh’s highest court threatens the expulsion of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh established after the Rana Plaza disaster. The legally binding agreement between hundreds of primarily European corporate retail brands and unions conducted safety inspections at more than 1,000 factories and educated workers on safety and other workplace rights.

Bangladesh is the biggest producer of garments in the world after China, with apparel exports totaling more than $30 billion last fiscal year. Although the Bangladesh RMG industry is by far the country’s biggest export earner, wages remain the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations. Yet the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Montreal.

1,000 Colombia Palm Oil Workers Win Pre-Agreement

1,000 Colombia Palm Oil Workers Win Pre-Agreement

More than 1,000 palm oil workers in Colombia ended a 20-day strike this week after winning a preliminary agreement with the Indupalma plantation that takes first steps toward formalizing their work status.

Colombia, strike, palm oil workers, Solidarity Center

A banner on the plantation describes the palm oil workers’ struggle for decent treatment on the job. Credit: Solidarity Center/Lauren Stewart

As subcontracted workers, the palm oil workers have no rights under Colombia’s labor laws, including the minimum wage, freedom of association and the right to negotiate working conditions. They walked off the job outside San Alberto January 25 to demand formal work status.

Under the preliminary agreement, the union and the employer will determine by March 7 which employees qualify for formalized status, and will then negotiate the details of the formalization process, with a September 7 deadline.

Representatives from the Colombia Ministry of Labor moderated the discussions between the employer and the workers’ union, the General Union of Third-Party Agribusiness Workers (UGTTA). Throughout the process, the workers and their union received support from the Central Union of Workers (CUT), AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center, along with a regional labor rights center (CAL); Escuela Nacional Sindical; the Corporation for Judicial Freedom (CJL); and Pacto Obrero, a coalition of unions in the palm sector.

Colombia, palm oil workers, strike, Solidarity Center

Palm oil workers stood strong during a 20-day strike at the Indupalma plantation in San Alberto. Credit: Solidarity Center/Lauren Stewart

Also this week, a delegation from the U.S. Department of Labor met with Colombian officials to follow up on the country’s progress with addressing noncompliance with labor provisions under the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The AFL-CIO and five Colombian labor organizations, including CUT, filed a trade submission in 2016 that pointed to illegal subcontracting and other violations of the trade agreement.

Unlike workers who are recognized as employees, subcontracted palm oil workers must purchase their own tools, as well as join and pay dues to phony “cooperatives”—structures that enable companies to evade legal responsibilities under the labor law.

The palm oil workers formed UGTTA last year, and despite the region’s history of threats and violence against workers who unionize, the union has grown from 248 to some 1,010 members. The union reports four members have received death threats in 2018.

Palm Oil Workers Strike for Recognition as Employees

Palm Oil Workers Strike for Recognition as Employees

More than 1,000 palm oil workers on strike outside San Alberto, Colombia are seeking recognition as employees. As subcontracted workers, they have no rights under Colombia’s labor laws, including freedom of association and the right to negotiate working conditions.

The workers walked off the Indupalma plantation on Thursday, after 668 out of 682 palm oil workers cast their ballots for a strike in a vote observed by the regional director of the Colombia Ministry of Labor.

Unlike workers who are recognized as employees, subcontracted palm oil workers must purchase their own tools, as well as join and pay dues to phony “cooperatives”—structures that enable companies to evade legal responsibilities under the labor law.

Last year, the palm oil workers formed the General Union of Third-Party Agribusiness Workers (UGTTA), and despite the region’s history of threats and violence against workers who form unions, the union has grown from 248 to some 1,010 members. The union reports four members have received death threats in 2018.

The Solidarity Center accompanied labor leaders, including Andrey Piñeres (video, below) who was laid off from the palm oil plantation after he became active with the union, to a meeting yesterday in Bogota with Colombia’s vice minister of Labor Relations to update her on the situation.


“The union met and voted unanimously to go on strike because of the company’s “refusal to negotiate direct contracting for more than 1,200 workers,” he says, calling on unions and civil society organizations to support their struggle.

The union says it is encouraged that the San Alberto Mayor assured them that if they do not block roads, he will not call in the riot police force, which has a history of violent repression of worker protests.

Employer Unions, Illegal Subcontracting

Solidarity Center, Colombia, palm oil workers, strike, human rights

María Eugenia Aparicio Soto, Colombia’s vice minister for Labor Relations, meets with union leaders and Solidarity Center staff to discuss the palm oil worker strike. Credit: Colombia Labor Ministry

In 2016 the Colombian government fined the company more than $1 million for unlawful subcontracting and its use of 23 “cooperatives” to undermine workers’ rights. The company is appealing the ruling.

The AFL-CIO and five Colombian labor organizations raised the issue of abusive subcontracting in a May 2016 trade submission under the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA). Even though the Colombian government has outlawed cooperatives for subcontracting of full-time workers who perform the same function as employees, the practice continues to occur within the palm oil industry and in other sectors.

In a 2017 U.S. Department of Labor review that assessed Colombia’s progress in addressing the worker rights violations highlighted in the 2016 U.S. trade submission, the agency expressed “significant concerns that the Ministry of Labor is not taking sufficient action to implement the new decrees or to otherwise enforce prohibitions on abusive subcontracting that may undermine the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.”

Earlier this month, the Labor Department’s second review urged the government to “take additional effective measures to combat abusive subcontracting and collective pacts, including improving application of existing laws and adopting and implementing new legal instruments where necessary.”

Striking Honduras Palm Oil Workers Attacked, Threatened

Striking Honduras Palm Oil Workers Attacked, Threatened

Several striking palm oil workers in Honduras were physically assaulted by private security guards and threatened with prison this week as they peacefully walked a picket line at company offices in El Progreso, according to the agro-industrial workers’ union federation FESTAGRO. The workers have been on strike since October, seeking to form a union in the face of stiff employer opposition.

Denouncing the attack, STAS, an agro-industrial union affiliated with FESTAGRO, says the company “is using violence to continue to violate the rights of workers” rather than initiate a serious dialogue.

The strike began October 20 when 160 palm oil workers walked off the job to protest the firing of 18 STAS-affiliated workers fired after workers indicated their intention to form a union. In early October, 80 palm oil workers had formed the country’s first-ever palm oil union, a move that sparked efforts by workers at other palm oil plantations to form unions.

The company went on to fire another 80 STAS-affiliated workers on November 2. Some 300 workers are now on strike and families are struggling to survive after nearly 70 days on the picket line.

According to FESTAGRO and the Honduran Network of Trade Unionists against Anti-Union Violence, after staff at a regional Ministry of Labor office conducted an inspection at the plantation in late November, a young FESTAGRO organizer was followed by a company vehicle when he later met with the Labor Ministry in the town of El Progreso.

Over the years, agro-industrial workers in the melon and banana sectors seeking to form unions with FESTAGRO, a longtime partner of the Solidarity Center, have been threatened, stalked and physically assaulted. The Anti-Union Violence Network, in which FESTAGRO is a key leader, also has documented murders of farm worker union activists, including those whose unions are members of the network.

The attack on the palm oil workers comes in the wake of violent repression against Hondurans protesting the country’s flawed elections. Honduran labor unions and human rights groups are demanding respect for human rights and transparency in the resolution of the country’s election crisis.

2 Striking Mexico Mine Workers Killed

2 Striking Mexico Mine Workers Killed

A group of armed civilians calling themselves the “Tonalapa Community Police,” attacked striking workers at the Media Luna gold mine in Mexico on November 18, killing two workers. The two men killed were brothers, Víctor and Marcelino Sahuanitla Peña.

Workers at the Cocula, Guerrero, gold mine went on strike earlier this month after their employer recognized the Confederation of Workers of Mexico (CTM) union, a labor organization with a history of acting as “protection union” by assisting employers in blocking independent unionization efforts. The independent mineworkers’ union, SNTMMSSRM (Los Mineros), had filed for a union election on October 13.

On November 16 and 17, union leaders and the employer negotiated a peaceful resolution  which called for the withdrawal of armed security forces and an expedited union representation election. The talks came after scores of armed police forces arrived at the mine, taking over the site on November 13.

“This is an outrageous and unacceptable attack on freedom of association and fundamental human rights,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “The perpetrators must be found and held accountable.

“We stand with Los Mineros and workers everywhere who seek to peacefully form unions of their choosing,” she says.

Workers say an army squadron detained the attackers, some of whom they identified as CTM leaders, but immediately released them. The government has now sent in armed security forces.

In a statement, the United Steelworkers in Canada urged the Canadian government to “intervene with Mexican authorities and the company to recognize the basic rights of Mexican workers and prevent further violence.”

Canada-based Torex Gold Resources owns the Media Luna mine.

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