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Nothing has changed for Bangladeshi garment workers

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Nothing seem to have changed for Bangladesh’s garment workers, three years after a factory complex collapse killed over a thousand people, a report by a rights group has said.

Garment workers still face daunting challenges to unionize and continue to remain at risk of interference and threats by factories, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its report on the eve of the third anniversary of the crash.

1,130 people, mostly garment workers were killed when the eight storied factory complex came crashing down in Savar, a suburb of  Bangladesh’s  capital Dhaka on 24 April 2016. Some 2,500 injured were pulled out of the rubble in the rescue operation that lasted days.

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A few banks and other establishments had shut operations after cracks were detected in the building complex. Survivors claimed they were forced to ignore the warnings and were coreced by their supervisors to continue work in the garment factories.

“Let’s remember that none of the factories operating in Rana Plaza had trade 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 at HRW, said.

Only about 10 percent of Bangladesh’s more than 4,500 garment factories have registered unions, the New York based rights group said in its report titled “Whoever Raises their Head Suffers the Most.”

While many factory workers have tried to form unions, authorities have frequently rejected applications.  The  labour laws and procedures pose formidable barriers to establishing and operating a union in Bangaldesh.

Factories owners continue to intimidate and attack unions and their members with impunity.  HRW 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.

Authorities have failed to hold factory officials accountable for attacks, threats, and retaliation against workers involved with unions.

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Rafiqul Islam shows photographs of the body of his brother Aminul Islam, a labor organizer, who disappeared in April 2012 and was later found dead. His body bore signs of torture. Image courtesy :  Arantxa Cedillo/The New York Times/ Redux

Some four million workers continue to toil, mostly in unsanitary conditions to fashion clothes for North American, European and Australian retailers like Walmart, Benneton and Auchan.

Several high end fashion labels had attracted the ire of labour activists and consumer groups for their failure to audit supply chains and “putting workers safety before profits.”

The collapse of the Rana factory building had prompted sweeping reforms in working conditions, right to unionise, increased pay and bonus.

After the collapse, a consortium of some 200 retailers said it was helping Bangladesh government install mechanisms to bolster inspection in the factories to boost workers safety.

The $ 26 billion garment export sector contributes more than 10 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP. The government is also not agressively pushing reforms after garment factory owners lobby complained of shrinking margins due to compliance costs and pressure from buyers to further reduce  price.

Despite all this, garment exports from Bangladesh has surged, reports say. Bangladesh has the world’s third lowest wages after Myanmar and Sri Lanka. A garment worker  gets paid $68, while the market leader China pays $280.

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