A day before Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza collapsed — killing more than 1,100 garment workers making clothes for western brands — employees evacuated the building after cracks appeared in the structure. But the next day, factory bosses ordered them back to their sewing machines, with deadly consequences.
Afterwards, Dhaka came under heavy pressure from western governments, and image-conscious brands, to allow garment workers to unionise as part of the overall emergency drive to improve factory safety.
Yet two years after Rana Plaza — the most calamitous in a string of deadly accidents at Bangladesh’s garment factories — labour organisers and human rights groups say workers trying to organise trade unions are facing rising levels of intimidation, harassment and physical abuse.
“In the last six months we have seen that the response to unionisation has become much more violent,” says Mr Vanpeperstraete.
In a report, Human Rights Watch, the US based group, estimates that fewer than 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s estimated 4,500 garment factories — which export $24bn worth of clothing a year to western groups such as Walmart, H&M, Primark and Benetton — now have functioning labour unions.
The report, released on Wednesday, two days before the second anniversary of the collapse, says many workers still face abuses such as forced and unpaid overtime, denial of statutory maternity benefits, pressure not to use the toilet and late or impartial payment of wages. Workers attempting to organise unions have been beaten by bosses or hired goons, threatened, or dismissed on spurious excuses.
“We found a pattern of violence against people trying to form unions,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The government’s attitude seems to be, ‘what are you talking about’, or ‘why are you singling out Bangladesh’, or ‘it’s all the fault of these individuals causing all the problems’.”
However, Shahidullah Azim, a vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, denied there was persecution of union organisers, and said Rana Plaza had been a “turning point” for the industry and its attitudes towards workers.
“There is a lot of improvement,” Mr Azim said. “The mindset of the entrepreneurs has been completely changed. We can’t make it overnight, but things are moving in a very positive way.”
Until the collapse of the Rana Plaza, most Bangladeshi garment manufacturers ruthlessly suppressed efforts to unionise workers, which they feared would undermine their profitability of their booming businesses.
In April 2012, Animul Islam, a 39-year-old labour leader who led protests against low wages in the garment industry, was abducted and murdered, an escalation of the long conflict over working conditions. Though Mr Islam’s killers were never identified, labour activists saw the killing as warning to other potential agitators.
Typically, Bangladesh’s government, over which garment factory owners wield tremendous clout, sided with manufacturers in disputes, and Dhaka obligingly kept the industry’s minimum wages frozen for years, even as double-digit inflation eroded workers’ real earnings.
But after the Rana Plaza disaster, Dhaka amended its labour law to technically make it easier for workers to form and register a factory-level union, and since then has recognised several hundred new unions. “In more than 300 factories, unions are newly registered, which is historical in our country,” says Nazma Akhter of the Independent Garment Workers Federation.
Setting up unions is only a first small step in the struggle for Bangladesh’s garments workers, many of whom pay half their salary just to rent a small room in an urban slum. “There are still lots of problems,” Ms Akhter said in her small office in Mohakhali, where a group of women garment workers were sitting in the road and blocking traffic to protest against a nearby factory’s failure to pay their February wages.
Ms Akhter says workers’ priorities are to secure a living wage, improve health and education for workers and their families, and ensure freedom of association. While the minimum wage was raised in December by 77 per cent to 5,300 taka ($68) a month, some employers have failed to comply.
That could be a tough task, as Mr Vanpeperstraete says government authorities and factory owners are now reverting to their old attitudes and ways. Though the BGMEA’s Mr Azim says 90 new factory-level unions are in the pipeline, organisers say the government’s rejection rate of applications to register new unions rose from 15 per cent in 2013 to 33 per cent last year to 55 per cent so far this year.
“The window of opportunity is closing,” Mr Vanpeperstraete says. “Actors within Bangladesh feel there is less pressure now. International attention is waning, and impunity is growing again.”
Source: Financial Times