Victims of the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse and their families demonstrating at the site of the disaster demanding full compensation.

(Dhaka) – Garment workers in Bangladesh face poor working conditions and anti-union tactics by employers including assaults on union organizers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In the two years since more than 1,100 workers died in the catastrophic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on April 24, 2013, efforts are underway to make Bangladesh factories safer, but the government and Western retailers can and should do more to enforce international labor standards to protect workers’ rights, including their right to form unions and advocate for better conditions.

“If Bangladesh wants to avoid another Rana Plaza disaster, it needs to effectively enforce its labor law and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director. “If Bangladesh does not hold factory managers accountable who attack workers and deny the right to form unions, the government will perpetuate practices that have cost the lives of thousands of workers.”

The 78-page report, ‘“Whoever Raises Their Head, Suffers the Most’: Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories,” is based on interviews with more than 160 workers from 44 factories, most of them making garments for retail companies in North America, Europe, and Australia. Workers report violations including physical assault, verbal abuse – sometimes of a sexual nature – forced overtime, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full. Despite recent labor law reforms, many workers who try to form unions to address such abuses face threats, intimidation, dismissal, and sometimes physical assault at the hands of factory management or hired third parties.

Human Rights Watch called on the Bangladesh government, factory owners, and Western retailers to ensure respect for workers’ rights and end the unlawful targeting of labor leaders by factory owners and supervisors.

At Rana Plaza, factory managers compelled reluctant workers to enter the building despite major cracks in the complex’s walls. At the Tazreen factory, where a fire killed at least 112 workers on November 24, 2012, managers refused to let workers escape even after the fire alarms went off. None of the factories involved had a union to represent workers to help them to push back against the managers’ deadly demands.

While changes to some labor laws since Rana Plaza, including provisions easing the union registration process, have facilitated registration of new unions, still fewer than 10 percent of garment factories in Bangladesh have unions. Union leaders told Human Rights Watch that they continue to be targeted by factory management, risking abuse by both managers and supervisors, or thugs acting at their behest. In some factories, workers leading efforts to form unions have been dismissed for their organizing activities. Factory owners and management reject these allegations. A Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) official told Human Rights Watch: “We have a bitter experience about unions. They believe they don’t need to work and they will get paid.”

Workers also continue to regularly face ill-treatment and poor working conditions inside factories such as physical and verbal abuse, forced overtime, denial of paid maternity leave, failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full, pressures not to take toilet breaks, and provision of dirty, unpotable drinking water. The vast majority of garment workers are women, while supervisors and managers are mostly men, and sometimes the verbal abuse of women workers is of a sexual nature.

A union leader at a factory in Gazipur said that when she and others tried to set up a union in January 2014, they were brutally assaulted and scores of workers were fired. She said she was beaten while pregnant, forced to work at night, and eventually fired, without receiving all the back wages she was owed, all because she refused to stop unionizing. “I was beaten with metal curtain rods in February when I was pregnant. I was called to the chairman’s room and taken to the third floor management room which is used by the management and directors and there I was beaten by the local goons.”

“The Bangladesh government and retailers need to ensure that factory owners and management start respecting workers’ rights, and the government must hold accountable those who abuse labor rights,” Robertson said. “Clearly, it is not enough to focus on factory safety alone. Recent tragedies at Bangladeshi factories demonstrate that dangerous working conditions are linked to the failure to respect workers’ rights, including their right to form unions which can help them to collectively bargain for improved safety.”  

The primary responsibility for protecting the rights of workers rests with the Bangladesh government. Since the Rana Plaza disaster, the government has taken steps to strengthen the Directorate of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, which is responsible for monitoring work place safety and compliance, and has hired more inspectors. But Human Rights Watch found that much more remains to be done to strengthen the ability of the Ministry of Labour and Employment to effectively investigate and prosecute unfair labor practices, including anti-union discrimination, intimidation, and harassment cases, and ensure inspectors strictly follow the law.

For instance, in one Dhaka-based factory, female union leaders faced threats, abuse, and dramatically increased workloads after they submitted union registration forms. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, six women who helped set up the union all said they were harassed for having sought to register, and one even said she received threats at home: “When I submitted the registration forms, local gangsters came to my house and threatened me. They said, ‘If you come near to the factory we will break your hands and legs.’” Similarly, some workers at a different factory told us that some union members had been forced to leave their homes after receiving threats when they filed union registration papers in 2014.

Many international garment brands and retailers have company codes of conduct that require suppliers to respect the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and factory managers have said that they comply with these codes. But despite these measures, workers in factories told Human Rights Watch that many abuses and violations are simply not noticed, or are ignored, by the monitors inspecting factories by or on behalf of buyers.

Factory owners and the companies buying their products have responsibilities to prevent human rights violations from occurring in the garment factories. They should take effective steps to identify and mitigate human rights risks, and should take remedial action should abuses occur. As the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights states, businesses should “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”

Bangladesh has also 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. Yet to date, Bangladesh’s labor laws do not fully comply with these standards.

The Bangladesh government should carry out effective and impartial investigations into all workers’ allegations of mistreatment, including beatings, threats, and other abuses, and prosecute those responsible.

Companies sourcing from Bangladesh factories should immediately take action to ensure that factory inspections conducted on their behalf or with their support are effective in ensuring that their supplier factories comply with the companies’ codes of conduct and the Bangladesh labor law. Audits and inspections undertaken by or on behalf of international apparel companies should be reviewed to ensure that they are capable of effectively detecting and investigating factory management actions and practices that deny workers’ rights to freedom of association and protection against anti-union discrimination. International apparel companies and clothing retailers should also agree to supply chain transparency and regularly and publicly disclose all Bangladesh-based factories from which they source.

The Human Rights Watch report also examines the aftermath of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen disasters. Three separate initiatives to inspect the factories for safety are underway, by the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and by government inspectors, supported by the ILO.

However, more remains to be done to adequately support the victims of the collapse of Rana Plaza and the deadly fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory. Survivors told Human Rights Watch that the compensation they have received until now is not sufficient to pay their medical bills and cover their loss of livelihood. An independent commission has estimated that US$30 million needs to be paid to the survivors of Rana Plaza and the dependents of those that died, but only about $21 million had been paid or pledged as of March 2015. For victims of the Tazreen fire, the situation is much worse in the absence of a sustained campaign for compensation, such as in the case of the Rana Plaza collapse. In November 2014, the European retailer C&A pledged a “significant amount towards full and fair compensation” for the victims of Tazreen, and the Hong-Kong-based company Li & Fung made a donation to support victims soon after the disaster. However, several other companies have paid nothing, claiming the factory was making or storing their products without their knowledge or authorization.

The readymade garment industry accounts for almost 80 percent of the country’s export earnings and contributes to more than10 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), employing more than four million workers, a majority of them women. The industry, which includes more than 4,500 factories of various sizes, has a crucial role in alleviating poverty in Bangladesh. However, the rapid growth, as well as the failure of the Bangladesh government to enforce its building and labor regulations, resulted in worker abuse and many unsafe and poorly constructed factories.

“Continuing the economic success of the Bangladesh garment sector offers benefits for everyone – the retail companies and their consumers, factory owners, and the government,” Robertson said. “But those gains should not come at the cost of lives and the suffering of garment workers struggling for a better future.”  

Selected testimony:
“Four people were holding me and beating me on the legs with bars and two people were beating her with iron bars. She was beaten on her head and on her back. Her arms were severely injured and bleeding. Bones of one of her fingers were broken. She had to get 14 stitches on her head. When they were beating up Mira, they were saying ‘You want to do union activities? Then we will shower you with blood.’”
– Mitu Datta, worker in a garment factory in Chittagong, describing the attack on his wife and him outside the factory.

“In our factory, 80 percent of workers are female and they will get pregnant but the managers are not doing anything about maternity leave and bonuses. When we protested about it, our supervisors used really bad words against us, such as: ‘If you’re all concentrating on fucking, why are you working here? Go and work in a brothel.’”
– A female worker at a Dhaka-based factory.

“They started beating me, slapping me, slapping on the ears and punching me, boxing me in the chest, on the sides, and I fell down, and then they started kicking me. I was screaming....”
– A worker at a Dhaka-based factory said he was beaten up after he intervened on behalf of a fellow worker who had been fired without receiving the benefits to which he was entitled.