When the Rana Plaza building collapsed in April, killing more than 1,200 Bangladesh garment workers, the disaster also injured thousands more workers, in many instances devastating their ability to support their families and plunging them into dire poverty.

Nasima was among the injured who survived the collapse of the multistory building. She suffers from severe wrist pain and as a result, is unable to work. She received no compensation for her injuries from the government, or from the multinational brands whose garments she sewed or from the factory owner—and now cannot even pay the rent or school fees. “I have three children and my children can’t go to school now,” she says.

Nasima was among several workers who met with Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) recently at the Solidarity Center’s office in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. Joined by Dan Mozena, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Levin held three meetings with workers and union leaders to hear firsthand from survivors of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen factory disasters and to learn the obstacles garment workers face when seeking to form unions to improve the safety of their workplaces.

One plant-level union leader told Levin that factory managers prohibit him from talking with his co-workers.  He was among 21 factory union leaders and seven union federation leaders to join the discussion.

Workers at another garment factory successfully formed a union despite managers’ attempts to convince them they did not need one. Julekha, vice president of Essex Ltd. Workers Union, told the congressman, “Now we know our rights. We are not afraid. They can’t harass us whenever they want. And we got a training and booklet on labor law from the federation leaders.” Julekha said workers now are waiting to hear back on demands they made to a management committee.

The United States in June suspended preferential trade benefits for Bangladesh because of chronic and severe labor rights violations. Because the benefits are suspended and not terminated, Bangladesh has the opportunity to again qualify for the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) by improving worker rights, laws and practices. A key measure of that program will be whether newly registered unions will be allowed to represent worker interests.

Since the suspension of benefits, the Bangladesh government has reinstated a garment worker rights group whose registration it had revoked in 2010, and media reports indicate the government dropped charges against two garment worker activists. But union leaders told Levin and Mozena they worried that the country’s new labor law, passed last month, is a step backwards for worker rights.

Levin expressed concern that garment workers are still facing threats when they seek to form unions and said that workers’ dignity and safety must be ensured. Mozena told the group that he believes “workers have the complete right to form trade unions. On behalf of my government, I am giving my commitment to you that I will do everything for you.”

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the News from The Solidarity Center