Global Demonstrations Highlight Ongoing Injustices For Bangladeshi Garment Workers
It has been almost six years since the shocking Rana Plaza building collapse highlighted how deeply unethical a large proportion of the garment manufacturing sector is. Poverty pay, intimidation, harassment and unsafe working environments, the list goes on. It took the tragic death 1,134 workers with thousands more injured for industry and government to really address the issues and set up a legally binding pact, known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
However, the fight is far from over. Yesterday, 30th January 2019, labour activists and trade unionists held demonstrations in front of the Bangladeshi High Commission and Consulate in London and Edinburgh to highlight the ongoing injustices regarding workers’ rights in the garment manufacturing sector.
Concerns are mounting globally after the violent response to recent wage-related protests, and the protracted court proceedings around the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh hampering crucial progress.
Image courtesy of Clean Clothes Campaign
Globally 8 other cities will be holding further demonstrations with a call for a halt to repression, to ensure workers are entitled to a living wage, workers rights and to safe working environments.
In December, thousands of Bangladeshi workers took to the streets in protest after the implementation of a wage revision turned out to have significantly different impacts for workers depending on their pay grade, with some receiving what amounts to just a few cents more. The long-awaited minimum wage hike came after a lengthy, highly problematic process, which lacked adequate representation of workers’ voices. As a result, the wage revision amounted to only half of the workers’ unified demand. It falls far short of any credible calculation of a living wage. After workers saw what the wage revision amounted to in their pay checks, thousands of them went on strike and organised massive protests that were met with police violence, involving rubber bullets and tear gas, killing one worker and injuring scores more.
Image by Kristof Vadino
Severe repression of workers is ongoing. Factory managers have fired over one thousand workers for participation in the protests. Dozens of workers, including union representatives, have been arrested and now face trumped-up charges that could lead to lengthy prison sentences, including life imprisonment. This adds to the many charges against worker representatives that are still pending since the 2016-2017 protests for higher wages.
The General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady says: “Bangladeshi workers make many of the clothes found in high street shops all over Britain. But many are denied basic rights we take for granted in the UK. The Bangladeshi government might pay lip service to the right of free association. But the reality is workers are sacked and assaulted for joining unions and defending their rights. And some union leaders have even been thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. The Bangladeshi government must protect the rights of garment workers to fair pay, and to negotiate with employers without being harassed and assaulted.”
War on Want’s Executive Director, Asad Rehman, says: “Poverty pay, 16-hour days, harassment and abuse is the reality for millions of women garment workers. This is a global story of corporations exploiting every angle they can to squeeze as much profit as they can, treating their workers as commodities and hiding behind the complex web of lengthy supply chains. More effective and legally binding measures to hold companies to account are also long overdue.”
The current spate of violence and repression comes at a time of already increased international attention on the Bangladesh’s garment industry. Since November 2018, proceedings at Bangladesh’s Supreme Court have created uncertainty about the future of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord has achieved concrete and lasting improvements in the country’s garment industry following the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, which killed at least 1,134 workers. The government of Bangladesh has repeatedly asserted that its own inspection programme, the Remediation and Coordination Cell (RCC), will be ready to take over and that the Accord should only be allowed to continue temporarily with government oversight. However, the RCC has not yet demonstrated the capacity or willingness to inspect and enforce factory safety to the same standards.
Dominique Muller of Labour Behind the Label comments: “The Bangladesh Accord has begun the process of improving factory safety in Bangladesh. This progress cannot be allowed to end now. In order to prevent another Rana Plaza, factories need to be properly inspected and Bangladesh workers need to be able to organize. The current repression against garment workers shows just how far the government needs to change before we can be sure factories are safe. Consumers in the UK need to know the clothes they buy are not putting workers lives at risk.”
In 2018 Bangladesh was named the second-largest global apparel exporter after China. It has plans to expand the sector into a $50bn-a-year industry by 2023.
Information and images provided by Clean Clothes Campaign