(New York) – The Bangladeshi government should stop garment factory owners from intimidating and threatening workers for organizing trade unions, and prosecute those responsible for attacks on labor leaders, Human Rights Watch said today. Foreign buyers, including major US and European retailers, should ensure that their Bangladeshi suppliers respect labor rights.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 47 workers in 21 factories in and around Dhaka. The workers claimed that some managers intimidate and mistreat employees involved in setting up unions, including threatening to kill them. Some union organizers said they were beaten up, and others said they had lost their jobs or had been forced to resign. Factory owners sometimes used local gangsters to threaten or attack workers outside the workplace, including at their homes, they said.
Bangladesh amended its labor law in July 2013 after widespread criticism following the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers. The labor ministry had previously refused to register all but a handful of unions, but the amendments have made it easier for unions to be formed. More than 50 factory-level unions have been established, but since the law still requires union organizers to get the support of 30% of the factory’s workers before registering a union, employer threats and intimidation make it a difficult task, especially in factories employing thousands of people.
“The best way to avoid future Rana Plaza-type disasters and end the exploitation of Bangladeshi workers is to encourage the establishment of independent trade unions to monitor and protect workers’ rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government has belatedly begun to register unions, which is an important first step, but it now needs to ensure that factory owners stop persecuting their leaders and actually allow them to function.”
There are more than 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh. The US and European Union (EU) have both linked Bangladesh’s continued access to trade preferences to making urgent improvements in labor rights and workplace safety.
The government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) should ensure compliance with the labor law, and sanction companies which abuse worker rights. Bangladesh has ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and is required to protect the rights contained in them.
Section 195 of the Bangladesh Labor Act (2006, amended 2013) outlaws numerous “unfair labor practices.” For example, no employer shall, “dismiss, discharge, remove from employment, or threaten to dismiss, discharge, or remove from employment a worker, or injure or threaten to injure him in respect of his employment by reason that the worker is or proposes to become, or seeks to persuade any other person to become, a member or officer of a trade union.”
Eyewitnesses recount threats, attacks against union workers
In Human Rights Watch interviews conducted in Dhaka from October 2013 onwards, many of the interviewees described abusive practices.
One female worker said that when the workers in her factory presented their union registration form to the company owner, he threw it in the dustbin – then threatened the workers, saying he would never allow the union to start. Two of her fellow organizers were later attacked by unknown perpetrators, one with cutting shears. Two weeks later, a group of men, including a local gangster and the owner’s brother, visited her home and threatened her. She agreed to resign.
Many female workers said they received threats or insults of a sexual nature. For example, workers complained that in one factory a supervisor said that any woman joining the union would be stripped of her clothes and thrown into the street. Elsewhere a manager said that a female union organizer was “polluting” his factory and should go and work in a brothel.
A union organizer in a different factory said he received a phone call telling him not to come to work again and threatening to kill him if he did so. When he went there the next day he was surrounded by a group of men who beat him and slashed him with blades.
Workers at one large factory told Human Rights Watch that they were trying to form their union without the managers finding out, because they were afraid of retaliation and losing their jobs. Other union organizers described being harassed without the use of threats and violence. Some complained that they were given extra work so they did not have time to meet colleagues. Others said that factory managers refused to meet them.
Labor activists also complained that some of the unions in factories are not genuinely independent, but are so-called “yellow unions” that have been established by the factory owners themselves to control workers and prevent them from establishing or joining the union of their choice.
Many of the workers described how labor relations, and working conditions, in their Bangladeshi factories are poor. As a result there have been frequent strikes and protests, some of which turn violent.
Yet factory owners interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they do not believe that permitting the existence of independent trade unions will improve the situation. One accused union organizers in his factory of fighting among themselves for control of the union; another was afraid that political parties might try to manipulate the unions.
Most of the workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch were employed by factories that manufacture garments for export and are supposed to comply with international retailers’ codes of conduct. Typically these codes include provisions that protect the right of workers to form unions.
After the Rana Plaza disaster, coming on the heels of the fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in November 2012 in which at least 118 workers died, both the US and the EU called on the Bangladeshi government and garments industry to improve labor rights. The US and the EU compose Bangladesh’s two largest overseas markets for garments.
In June 2013, the US announced the suspension of Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). In order to regain these benefits, the US demanded that Bangladesh improve its monitoring and inspection of factories and increase “fines and other sanctions, including loss of import and export licenses” that fail to comply with labor, fire, or building standards. In July 2013, the EU’s European trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, warned that Bangladesh might lose its duty-free and quota-free access to the EU if it did not improve its record on labor rights and workplace safety. The EU will conduct a review in the summer of 2014.
A legally binding safety accord signed by 125 mainly European retailers after Rana Plaza also called for trade unions, where they exist, to play an important role in ensuring factory safety.
“It is now time for those in the Bangladeshi garment industry to wake up and realize that they are endangering their business if they do not comply with what the US, the EU, and their own government are demanding,” Adams said. “But unfortunately, some garment factory owners are continuing their narrow focus of renewed anti-union action based on seeing unions as a threat to their control.”
To the Bangladeshi government:
- Effectively enforce the labor law and amend it to comply with international standards.
- Ensure workers’ rights to form unions and increase factory inspections.
- Investigate allegations against factory owners who engage in anti-union activity.
- Investigate all allegations of beatings, threats, and abuse by workers and prosecute those responsible.
To the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association
- Support the establishment of independent trade unions in members’ factories and discourage the setting up of so-called “yellow unions.”
- Work with the government to ensure that anti-union behavior is eradicated.
- Work with the International Labour Organization to educate factory owners in the benefits of having independent trade unions and improved labor relations.
To international apparel brands
- Encourage Bangladeshi factories to protect worker rights.
- Improve factory inspections and publish findings to ensure factories comply with brands’ codes of conduct and the Bangladesh Labor Law.
- Immediately join the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, a legally binding agreement that seeks to involve factory workers in ensuring the safety of factories.
Worker interviews (identities and factory names withheld to protect workers against possible retaliation):
One of the main problems I had with the factory was that it was very dirty. One time I even found leeches in the drinking water container, and there was no space to eat so we had to take our lunches and eat in the toilet.
We started to organize the union in July. When we took the registration form to the owner he threw it in the dustbin. He said that he would spend lots of money to stop the union from being formed. He said he would bribe the police and hire thugs. So we felt really scared.
In total there were 14 organizers. Two of them were beaten. One woman was attacked with cutting shears. Then some men came to my house. This was about 15-20 days after we submitted the forms. There was one mastan [gangster] as well as the owner’s brother and some other staff. The mastan said, “if you do not leave your job we will do something serious to you, so take your money, take two months’ pay, and go away.” I was terrified and so I agreed. I signed the resignation letter and was given the money. Whoever raises their heads suffers the most.
Male worker 1:
I was elected the president of my trade union by my colleagues and we started to organize confidentially. But one day the floor supervisor found out. He started to threaten me. He said, “you will be killed by the owners.” He then slapped me in the face, insulted me, and said I would lose my job.
We registered our union on September 29, 2013. We haven’t lost our jobs but the workers who are union members are suffering a lot. They have increased the amount of work that all of us have to complete. If we don’t finish the work they insult us. This situation forced one of our colleagues to resign.
Male worker 2:
In December we invited the management to a meeting but they refused. The production manager said, “the union will not help us so don’t try to fight the owner. If you try to fight then we will make sure you won’t be able to walk again.” Since we have formed the union some of our members have received verbal abuse. Whenever they get the opportunity, they insult us.
In the sewing section, when the line supervisor walks up and down, he says that anyone who is in the union will be stripped naked and kicked into the street. Another one of the supervisors said that the three main organizers of the union will be shot dead, that the owner is planning to hire assassins to shoot us. When we complained about this to the production manager he accused us of doing politics in the factory. He said that whoever does politics will be sacked and now that the union has been formed we are responsible for all the problems of the workers.
Male worker 1:
When we were organizing the union, we were treated badly. As well as being threatened, our workload was increased so it was hard to find the time to talk to my colleagues about the union. It was registered in June 2013. Then things became worse. Some local gangsters beat me up and told me not to encourage other workers to join the union. Two managers and 10 outsiders were involved. They beat me up in front of the factory and told me to resign from the union or I would be killed.
Male worker 2:
On November 14, after work at around 9:30 pm, I received a phone call from an unknown number. The man asked me if my name was correct and then asked if I worked at the factory. Both times I said yes. Then the man accused me of threatening one of the production managers at the factory. I told him no such thing happened. Then he started insulting me and said that it didn’t matter if I were a leader, I should not go back to the factory. “If we see you there we will shoot you and make sure you die,” he said.
Then on the morning of the 15th, just as I left my house and reached the street corner, I saw some men standing there. They followed me close to the factory. Then one grabbed my neck and slapped me. He said, “last night I told you not to come to the factory.” They searched my pockets and stole my money. Then they began to beat me. Then they took blades out of their pockets and started to slash me. I called for help, and the men ran away. I have filed a case with the police and the union is now demanding that the factory sack the general manager and the production manager.
Female worker 1:
One of the major problems was that we were not getting legal holidays off and even for maternity leave they would pay us for only half the amount they had to. There was always also lots of bad behavior and shouting.
The general manager told us not to set up the union; he said they would give us permission to set one up later. Fifteen of us who were organizing it were threatened with dismissal. After I submitted the registration form, some local gangsters came to my house and threatened me. They said, “if you come near the factory we will break your hands and legs.” I was so scared I moved to a new house, but I still went to the factory. They gave me double work to keep me busy and I was not allowed to meet other colleagues.