It’s been a torrid few years for Bangladesh’s lucrative garment-making industry. There was the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when more than 1,100 workers died when an eight-story factory collapsed on top of them. In the years since the disaster, global clothing brands have become increasingly concerned about workers’ rights in Bangladesh.
Following pressure from rights groups and uncomfortable media exposés in the aftermath of the Ashulia wage strikes in the outskirts of Dhaka, international brands are starting to vote with their feet by refusing to participate in the upcoming Dhaka Apparel Summit later this month.
The summit is being hosted by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA). Two key speakers who were supposed to address the summit are no longer listed in the event program: the global head of production of clothing giant H&M, and a representative of the C&A Foundation, a foundation funded by the Dutch mega brand C&A.
Meanwhile, the global union federation IndustriALL confirmed that global brands H&M, Inditex, C&A, and Tchibo have pulled out of the summit “citing the current climate of repression against unions as incompatible with activities to promote the industry.”
This signals global brands’ strong displeasure at how the government, BGMEA, and some of its members have dealt with recent Ashulia strikes. The police harassed and arrested some union leaders and workers on apparently fabricated criminal cases after they went on strike over low wages.
The BGMEA says it is “working together to reach amicable settlements, wherever possible” with regard to the criminal cases filed by factories. But such non-committal platitudes are not enough. If it’s to win back the confidence of global garment brands it should urge factories affiliated to BGMEA to withdraw or support the quashing of all of the abusive criminal proceedings initiated by them and urge authorities to drop such cases. It should urge factories to rehire the workers that were unfairly sacked or suspended over the Ashulia strikes. It should also tackle disturbing reports that some of its members thwart workers who try to set up unions.
It should also address the need for a wage review, which was the principal cause of the strikes. Despite wage hikes in the country’s garment sector, workers in Bangladesh are among the lowest paid in the industry. It’s certainly possible for factories to do more; workers in two Ashulia factories, Donglian Fashion and Natural Denims Ltd., recently successfully negotiated a wage hike with employers. Currently, garment workers in Bangladesh earn so little that their average compensation falls below the World Bank’s poverty line. This injustice should not continue.