Union Leaders Attacked at Bangladesh Garment Factories, Investigations Show

Mira Boashak, the acting union president at Azim’s Global Trousers factory.

The garment factory’s closed-circuit camera captured some unusual activity: Out front a female union leader was swarmed by people, pushed to the ground and assaulted while a male union activist was chased away and punched.

Another female union leader entered the factory door and seconds later was pushed outside, then shoved out of camera range.

Two investigations of the episodes depicted in the video, one led by a Washington-based workers’ rights group and another by a prominent American apparel company, determined that the camera footage showed that factory managers directed those attacks at the Global Garments factory in Bangladesh on Nov. 10.

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The attacks occurred three months after a female union president was beaten in the head with an iron rod just outside another factory owned by the same company, the Azim Group, requiring her to get more than 20 stitches, workers’ rights groups say. They maintain that company-directed thugs carried out that assault, while the Azim Group said the assault resulted from a feud involving a former husband that, the company’s law firm said, “occurred outside working hours, outside the factory grounds, outside any industrial dispute.”

The Azim Group, which says it has 24 factories and employs 27,000 workers, said it was not involved in either altercation. Mishcon de Reya, a law firm representing Azim, said the November dispute “arose between the workers and union leaders.”

These attacks occurred as the United States and Europe, with workers’ advocacy groups, have been pressuring Bangladesh and its garment industry to improve factory safety and to guarantee that workers are free to unionize if the country wants some trade preferences restored. The Obama administration suspended Bangladesh’s trade privileges last year, after the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 apparel workers.

In response to the recent attacks against union leaders, two major apparel companies have announced that they are terminating or suspending orders with the Azim Group, the company that owns the two factories in Chittagong where the attacks occurred.

After commissioning an investigation, the VF Corporation, which produces the North Face, Nautica, Wrangler and Timberland brands, informed Azim on Dec. 13 that it was terminating their business relationship unless Azim took strong, demonstrable steps by Dec. 31 to guarantee workers’ rights and assure no further violence against union leaders.

Scott Deitz, the vice president for corporate relations at VF, called the attacks “deplorable,” and said that while “we do not produce at the factories where these terrible incidents occurred,” VF has “an obligation to ensure that Azim is complying with our global compliance principles.” He said that VF accounts for about 10 percent of the production at Azim’s factories.

In addition, Li & Fung, a global supply chain company that helps arrange apparel production for Kohl’s in Bangladesh, said it had conducted its own assessment.

“We concluded that a number of union representatives were mistreated and intimidated by factory supervisors,” Li & Fung, which is based in Hong Kong, wrote by email. “This is a serious violation of our code of conduct and that of our customer. As a result, we have suspended all future orders with any factories owned and operated by the Azim Group of companies.” VF and Li & Fung said their penalties would remain in place until they were certain that Azim was respectful of workers’ rights at all its factories and union leaders were free from harassment.

Through its law firm, the Azim Group said that the episodes on Nov. 10 were “nonviolent” and that “the workers of the factory were exercising their legal rights to raise concerns about the union leaders.” The company’s law firm added that “any suggestion that the disagreement was ‘organized or directed’ by the management of Azim Group is false.”

With regard to the beating on Aug. 26 of Mira Boashak, the acting union president at Azim’s Global Trousers factory, Farhan Azim, director of the Azim Group, said the company had done “whatever we can to assist through paying all medical bills and full remuneration for our worker during her long absence from work.”

In an email responding to questions from The New York Times, Mr. Azim said the company routinely engaged in collective bargaining and that it had welcomed and encouraged trade union activity for years.

Mr. Azim said that VF had indicated it was willing to discuss how to move forward, and “stated that they strongly hope we can come to an understanding of how to do this.” He added, “The publication of any story by you based on unsubstantiated allegations would be counterproductive at this point and would compel us to take legal recourse.”

His father, Mohammad Fazlul Azim, the company’s founder, was until recently a member of the Bangladeshi Parliament.

Dan Mozena, who stepped down as the United States ambassador to Bangladesh this week, said in a telephone interview, “We are following the incidents,” adding, “it’s a concern to us.”

“The owner alleges that he had nothing to do with it, and the victims allege he had everything to do with it,” Mr. Mozena said.

“We have raised these matters with Azim on a number of occasions,” he added. “A criminal act is a criminal act. Whoever perpetrated these beatings, those people need to be held accountable in the criminal process.”

The Worker Rights Consortium, a monitoring group sponsored by more than 180 American universities, investigated the attacks outside the two factories and brought those attacks to the attention of VF and other apparel companies.

A report that the consortium sent to Azim’s customers on Dec. 18 concluded, “Overwhelming testimonial and videographic evidence proves that Azim Group carried out a coordinated series of attacks on leaders of the GGL (Global Garments Ltd.) union on November 10, involving numerous intentional acts of violence and public humiliation.”

Representatives of the consortium interviewed the union leaders who had been beaten and many other workers from the two Azim factories in Chittagong.

“What happened is part of a rising wave of violence against workers who are trying to organize and defend their rights and their safety,” said Scott Nova, the consortium’s executive director. “If this violence is successful in suppressing the nascent growth of the labor movement, then the prospect for real change in Bangladesh will be severely dimmed.”

Mr. Nova said the compensation the Azim Group provided did not cover all Ms. Boashak’s medical bills and was inadequate. Photographs of her wounds show a long, open, bright red gash in her skull after the Aug. 26 attack.

Mr. Nova said it would be a first for Bangladesh if the Azim Group reached a comprehensive agreement to remedy the violence and ensure constructive relations with its unions.

Dana M. Perlman, a spokeswoman for PVH, which is based in New York and produces Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein apparel, said it was also investigating the episodes at the two factories. “Pending the results, and the Azim Group’s response, we are not placing any further orders with those two facilities,” she said.

VF has made clear that whatever production it stops doing at Azim will be transferred to other factories in Bangladesh so as not to penalize the country. Labor advocates are urging other companies to do likewise.

VF hired what it said was a respected human rights expert based in Hong Kong to investigate the beatings. It declined to make its report or the name of the investigator public.

Jeff Hermanson, director of global strategy for Workers United, the main union for United States garment workers, was invited by VF to help with the investigation in Bangladesh. He said he worked closely with the leader of the investigation and they found from interviews and the closed-circuit video that some managers and anti-union workers had arrived early and were strategically placed when buses stopped outside the factory. The plant was reopened on Nov. 10 after being closed for three months.

“The supervisors were all in front of the gate,” Mr. Hermanson said, “and when the union people arrived, they were dragged and pushed off camera where we were told they were assaulted severely.”

“It became clear to us,” he added, “that there was violence against trade unionists, that it was planned by management.”

Laura Wilkinson, a Gap spokeswoman, said that while Gap was not a customer of the two factories where the attacks occurred, it uses other Azim Group factories. “Our sourcing and social responsibility teams jointly met with factory ownership to express our serious concerns and expectations,” she said. “We put the Azim Group on notice that if we do not see a swift resolution of this matter, that all parties can support, there will be a significant and direct business impact.”

Source: New York Times