(New York) – Garment workers face daunting challenges to unionization, and remain at risk of interference and threats by factories three years after the Rana Plaza building collapse, Human Rights Watch said today. The Bangladesh government should urgently remove legal and practical obstacles to unionization.

Fatema holds a picture of her son, Nurul Karim, one year after both he and her daughter Arifa died in the April 24, 2013 Rana Plaza collapse.

© 2014 Reuters

The April 2013 building collapse killed 1,100 garment workers and injured many others. In July 2013 the Bangladesh government committed to a Sustainability Compact with the European Union, pledging to reform labor laws. Yet its laws and rules governing labor rights and export processing zones still have rigid union restrictions, in violation of international law.

“Let’s remember that none of the factories operating in Rana Plaza had trade unions,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “If their workers had more of a voice, they might have been able to resist managers who ordered them to work in the doomed building a day after large cracks appeared in it.”

Only about 10 percent of Bangladesh’s more than 4,500 garment factories have registered unions. While many factory workers have tried to form unions, government authorities have frequently rejected applications. In an April 2016 Human Rights Watch meeting with Mohammed Mujibul Haque, the country’s labor minister, Haque dismissed concerns raised about the difficulty of registering a union, saying, “Most who apply for union registration have no idea what a union is.”

Bangladesh labor laws and procedures pose formidable barriers to founding and operating a union. The labor law requires an unreasonably high 30 percent of workers in a factory to agree to form a union and mandates excessive registration procedures. The government has vaguely defined powers to cancel a union’s registration.

Factories also threaten and attack unions and their members with impunity. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of physical assault, intimidation and threats, dismissal of union leaders, and false criminal complaints by factory officials or their associates against garment workers. The Bangladesh authorities have failed to hold factory officials accountable for attacks, threats, and retaliation against workers involved with unions.

If their workers had more of a voice, they might have been able to resist managers who ordered them to work in the doomed building a day after large cracks appeared in it.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

The EU along with the United States and Canada – as key importing countries and proponents of reform also involved in monitoring the Sustainability Compact – should ensure that the Bangladesh government publicly announces time-bound commitments to revise its labor laws and rules, preferably in 2016.

They should also insist that all aspects of the Sustainability Compact have publicized timelines against which the Bangladesh government’s record can be assessed. Unless such steps are taken and demonstrable progress made under the Sustainability Compact, the EU should send a clear message to the Bangladesh government that it will initiate action to revoke the country’s trade preferences under the Everything But Arms trade initiative.

The EU and other donors should also insist that the Bangladesh government put in place a robust process for investigating and resolving cases of unfair labor practices.

Global apparel and footwear brands that source from factories in Bangladesh, including those in the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, should also support efforts to ease legal restrictions on unions and stop factory union-busting activities. They should disclose their supplier and processing factories, and work with them to ensure they comply with international standards for workers’ basic rights.

“Thwarting independent garment worker unions is bad for businesses, workers, and Bangladesh’s international reputation,” Robertson said. “Bangladesh needs to show it has political will to permit workers to exercise their rights by registering unions promptly and punishing factory owners who bust unions or fire their leaders.”

Garment workers in Bangladesh face poor working conditions and anti-union tactics by employers including assaults on union organizers. 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.

Legal and Practical Barriers to Effective Unionizing
Bangladesh has ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, which set out international standards that governments should meet for allowing workers to form unions of their choosing and without interference, and pledged to reform its laws under its Sustainability Compact with the EU. It is also required to respect freedom of association under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet the Bangladesh Labour Act, labor rules, and the laws governing export processing zones fall short of these and other international rights standards.

The European Commission’s April 2015 Technical Status Report on the Bangladesh Sustainability Compact identifies legal barriers to effective unionizing and collective bargaining. These include the high minimum membership requirement of 30 percent of workers for a factory-level union; limitations on trade unions’ right to freely elect representatives; vague administrative powers to cancel union registration; and severe limitations on the right to strike.

Government and union data show that while the number of union registration applications has increased since 2013, the government has rejected a large amount of these applications. The Solidarity Center, a nonprofit organization aligned with the AFL-CIO labor federation, estimates that authorities approved fewer than half of the union applications filed since 2013. An annual breakdown compiled by the Solidarity Center showed that in 2015 labor authorities approved 61 union registration applications, while rejecting 148. The Dhaka Joint Directorate of Labour alone rejected 73 percent of the applications.

Instead of streamlining registration procedures, the Bangladesh government issued Labour Rules in September 2015 making the registration procedure more burdensome. For example, rule 169(4) says that only a person employed as a “permanent worker” is eligible to become a union leader – that is, a member of the union’s executive committee. This gives authorities an excuse to “verify” the nature of the contract and can be cited as grounds to reject union applications. Similarly, the definition of “supervising officer” is vague enough to be arbitrarily used by authorities to disqualify certain garment workers from eligibility to join, form, or remain part of union leadership.

Rule 168 states that unions must register in accordance with “Forms,” which require workers identified as members to produce their union membership certificate and provide their national identity numbers. In practice, that may be difficult. Alonzo Suson, the Solidarity Center’s Bangladesh country director, told Human Rights Watch that workers seldom retain union membership certificates, which are in the form of receipts. Before the rules were introduced, workers were simply allowed to state their names and worker identification numbers issued by the factory. Government authorities have been rejecting union registration applications that lack worker receipts and national identification numbers.

This year the Solidarity Center analyzed 70 cases from 2013 to 2016 in which authorities rejected union registration applications. The study documented the following reasons for rejection, among others:

  • Assertion that applicants did not meet the threshold of 30 percent of the total number of workers to register a union, despite some applications showing they met or exceeded the threshold;
  • Management refusal to allow labor officials access to the factory to “investigate” applications, even though unions met registration requirements;
  • Allegations that worker signatures on union membership forms did not match those in salary sheets, although formatting, space, and other considerations were probably not taken into account; and
  • A requirement that local police verify that workers had met and elected the union on the date cited in the application.

Suson also said that labor authorities conduct “inspections” to “verify” the details in union applications. The authorities often interview workers seeking to form a union in the presence of factory management, even when the factory is engaging in anti-union activities, thus exposing the workers to retaliation.

The situation in export processing zones is even worse. The law governing these zones does not allow workers to form unions. They can only form “Worker Welfare Associations,” which, by restricting the type of organization that the workers can join, fail to meet international standards on freedom of association. The workers are prohibited from contacting nongovernmental organizations, must not be associated with political activity, and cannot engage “specialists” to help them bargain collectively. A February 2016 amendment to the laws governing these zones, which the government drafted without consulting workers or labor rights advocates, retains these restrictions.

Union Busting
In a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch documented numerous examples of factory interference with unions, including physical assault; intimidation and threats, such as threats of sexual violence against women workers seeking to form unions; dismissal of union leaders; and false criminal complaints against workers. Since 2013, the Solidarity Center has documented more than 100 cases in which factory officials or hired thugs have beaten or threatened workers, intimidated their families, filed false criminal charges against workers, or fired them for union activity.

Bangladesh authorities have failed to initiate appropriate legal action against union-busting factories. In some cases, police have refused to record criminal complaints and failed to initiate impartial investigations. In a recent example, the Solidarity Center documented a case in February in which the police failed to register a criminal complaint when a union leader was beaten by a group of people, including some he recognized as employees of another factory owned by the same group. The 2012 murder of Aminul Islam of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, a nongovernmental organization that protects workers’ rights, has yet to be properly investigated.

There are no procedures governing investigation of union-busting and other unfair labor practices by labor authorities. The 2015 Rules merely state that labor authorities should dispose of complaints within 30 days, but do not mention due process. Even if authorities find that factories have unfairly dismissed workers for unionizing, they can only file complaints in labor courts, where cases are often delayed.