Window-dressing in Bangladesh?
“We started to organise 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.
[…] Two organisers were beaten. One woman was attacked with cutting shears. Then some men came to my house. They 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.”
- female worker organiser, interviewed by Human Rights Watch
Freedom of association
The ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh remains almost entirely unregulated: not only are there gaps in the existing legislation, but the laws are also poorly enforced. Employers continuously and repeatedly deny workers their right to freedom of association through threats and intimidation, violence, unfounded legal action, and firing employees who try to organise. No employers have been prosecuted for their criminal actions, and not a single employer has been found legally liable for acts of violence against worker organisers.
This lack of accountability is reinforced by the Bangladeshi police, who routinely reject reports of violations from workers and fail to investigate workers’ claims of criminal actions by factory management. A prime example is the 2012 murder of Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi labour rights activist and former garment worker. His murder remains unsolved and little progress seems to have been made with the investigation.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, along with other groups, has been supporting a number of unions in Bangladesh to resolve specific cases of trade union repression at a number of different factories. The case at the Chunji Knit factory provides just one of the many examples of freedom of association violations in Bangladesh: there are many more.
Agreement on improvements
Following the Rana Plaza collapse in April 2013, there was an increase in political pressure from both inside and outside Bangladesh for immediate improvements in working conditions. While the focus was initially on safety issues specifically, most of the agreements signed around that time included commitments to protect workers’ right to freedom of association, as the inability of workers to refuse unsafe work or raise safety concerns was seen as one of the root causes of the ready-made garment industry’s high death toll.
These commitments were embedded in a number of agreements, including the Bangladesh Accord and the National Tripartite Action Plan
New unions established
In the months after the Rana Plaza collapse, trade unions appeared to be gaining confidence. The organising environment – while not perfect – appeared to be improving. Between January 2013 and April 2014, 123 factory unions were registered with the authorities, whereas between January 2010 and December 2012, a total of just 3 factory unions were registered.
However, since March 2014 the situation seems to be deteriorating. The authorities have rejected an increasing number of union registrations, often on arbitrary grounds. Workers and trade union leaders have reported a number of incidents of violence and harassment. Little or no action has been taken by the Labour Department or the police in these cases.
The violation of freedom of association is widespread, and while we continue to support our partners in challenging these violations in factories where they are organising, the issue needs to be addressed on a more fundamental level.
The Clean Clothes Campaign and its allies are therefore calling on the government of Bangladesh to:
- Make clear to factory owners and management that attacks on trade union organisers and workers will not be tolerated in Bangladesh.
- Ensure that the relevant authorities enforce Bangladesh’s labour laws and properly investigate unfair labour practice claims submitted by workers.
- Ensure that the police protect and respect trade union and federation leaders, organisers, and workers.
- Investigate and bring to justice perpetrators of attacks against workers and trade union organisers. This includes conducting a transparent and swift investigation into the murder of Aminul Islam in 2012.
- Further reform Bangladeshi labour law to bring it in line with ILO standards, particularly concerning the right of workers to join or form unions of their free choice and to bargain collectively in Export Processing Zones.
A video by the ILO, telling the story of a working mother who organized one of the new trade unions.