What would happen if China attacks Bangladesh?

Bangladesh: Workers with no rights two years after Rana Plaza

(Dhaka) - Working conditions in the garment sector in Bangladesh are poor and employers are fighting unions, including assaulting activists, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Since more than 1,100 workers have died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on April 24, 2013 two years ago, attempts have been made to improve safety in the factories. But the government and western traders can and should do far more to implement international labor standards and protect workers' rights, including their right to set up interest groups and work for better working conditions.

"If the government in Bangladesh is to prevent a second Rana Plaza, it must enforce labor law and ensure that textile workers can voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal," said Phil Robertson, deputy head of Asia - Division of Human Rights Watch. "Unless the government holds factory managers accountable for attacking their employees and denying them the right to form unions, it will continue practices that have killed thousands."

The 78-page report “Whoever Raises Their Head, Suffers the Most: Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories ”is based on interviews with more than 160 workers from 44 factories, most of whom produce clothing for textile retailers in North America, Europe and Australia. The workers describe that they were physically and verbally attacked, in some cases verbally sexually harassed, had to work overtime forcibly, received no continued wages during maternity leave and were withheld their salary or bonus payments in whole or in part. Despite recent labor law reforms, many workers have been threatened, intimidated, dismissed and sometimes assaulted by factory management or third parties for trying to form unions and raise awareness.

Human Rights Watch has historically called on the Bangladeshi government, factory owners and western traders to respect workers' rights and end the illegal abuses by factory managers and supervisors against trade unionists and workers activists.

In Rana Plaza, factory managers forced reluctant textile workers to enter the building despite large cracks in the walls. When a fire broke out at the Tazreen factory that eventually killed at least 112 workers, management forbade people to leave the building even after the fire alarm went off. There were no unions in either of the two factories that could have helped workers fight deadly orders from their employers.

Since Rana Plaza, the government has reformed some areas of labor law, including simplifying the registration of trade unions. Yet less than 10 percent of the garment factories in Bangladesh have unions. Active trade unionists report that management is still targeting them and that their involvement risks abuse - both by factory managers and supervisors, and by hired thugs. In some factories, workers have been laid off for advocating for advocacy groups. But factory owners and business management reject these allegations. A representative from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) told Human Rights Watch: “We have had a bad experience with trade unionists. They imagine that they don't have to work and still get paid. "

The working conditions in many factories are still poor. Workers are physically and verbally intimidated, have to work overtime, there is no paid maternity leave, they are often not paid on time, only partially or not at all, are not supposed to take toilet breaks and are only given dirty, undrinkable water. The vast majority of employees in the clothing industry are women, while the supervisors and managers are almost all men. Some of them sexually insult the workers.

For example, a trade union activist from Gazipur reported that she and her colleagues were brutally attacked and dozen of them fired when they tried to set up an advocacy group in January 2014. She was pregnant when she was beaten. She was forced to work at night and was eventually fired. She never received the wages that had not been paid to her until then. She experienced all of this because she refused to end her engagement. “I was beaten with metal curtain rods in February even though I was pregnant. I was summoned to the manager's office and then taken to a room on the third floor that is used by the management and operations management. Local thugs beat me up. "

“The government of Bangladesh and retailers need to ensure that factory owners and business managers respect workers' rights. The government should hold those who harm it accountable, ”said Robertson. “Obviously, it is not enough to focus solely on job security. The recent tragedies in Bangladesh's factories show that dangerous working conditions are directly related to the failure of workers' rights to be respected, in particular their right to form trade unions with which they could collectively advocate greater safety. "

The main responsibility for protecting workers' rights rests with the government. Since the Rana Plaza disaster, she has taken steps to strengthen the position of the Factory and Site Inspection Directorate. It monitors job security and labor law compliance and has now been able to hire additional auditors. However, more extensive action is needed to enable the Department of Labor and Employment to effectively detect and punish unfair labor practices, including where trade unionists are discriminated, intimidated and harassed. In addition, the ministry must ensure that the auditors adhere to the legal requirements.

The case of some female union activists in a factory in Dhaka is exemplary. They were threatened, ill-treated and had a dramatically increased workload after submitting their union registration forms. Six women involved in the establishment were harassed, one even threatened at home: “After I submitted the registration documents, local criminals came to my home and threatened me. They said, 'If you come anywhere near the factory, we'll break your arms and legs.' ”Employees in another factory experienced a similar experience. They report that some union members had to leave their homes last year because they were threatened after handing in registration forms.

Many international clothing companies and retailers have codes of conduct that require their suppliers to respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Many factory managers claim to adhere to these codes. Nevertheless, many workers reported that the auditors sent by the buyers failed to notice or simply ignored human rights violations and violations.

Both the factory owners and the companies that buy their products have a responsibility to prevent human rights abuses in the garment factories. They should take effective measures to identify and reduce human rights risks and remedy existing grievances. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require that companies should prevent or mitigate adverse human rights effects that are directly related by a business relationship to their business, products or services, even if they do not contribute to those effects.

Bangladesh has also ratified conventions No. 87 and 98 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining and must guarantee the rights enshrined in them. But to date, the international standards have not been fully implemented in national law.

The government of Bangladesh should investigate effectively and impartially all allegations of ill-treatment that workers bring against their employers. In cases of physical violence, threats and other human rights violations, those responsible should be prosecuted.

Companies that source products from factories in Bangladesh should take immediate action to ensure that factory inspections carried out on their behalf or with their assistance determine the extent to which the factories are complying with codes of conduct and Bangladeshi labor law. To do this, it is necessary to evaluate the reviews and inspections by or for international clothing companies. The central question is whether they are suitable for identifying and reviewing actions and practices of management that curtail the right to organize or discriminate against workers on the basis of their trade union involvement. In addition, international clothing companies and retailers should make their supply chains transparent and regularly disclose which factories in Bangladesh they source from.

The aftermath of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen disasters is also examined in the Human Rights Watch report. There are currently three initiatives to review factory safety, namely the Fire and Building Safety Agreement, the Alliance for Occupational Safety in Bangladesh, and government auditors supported by the ILO.

However, more action is needed to provide adequate support to the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse and the fire at the Tazreen factory. Survivors reported that the compensation they have received so far is insufficient to pay their medical bills and make up for the loss of their livelihoods. An independent commission estimates that the victims of Rana Plaza and their relatives will have to pay a total of around 30 million euros. But by March 2015 only just under 20 million euros had been paid or promised. The situation of the Tazreen victims is even worse because, unlike the survivors of Rana Plaza, they are not continuously supported by a compensation campaign. In November 2014, European retailer C&A pledged to contribute “a significant sum to full and fair compensation” for Tazreen victims. Hong Kong-based company Li & Fung made a donation immediately after the disaster. But several other companies have not yet paid, claiming the factory produced or stored their products without their knowledge or permission.

The clothing industry generates almost 80 percent of Bangladesh's export income and contributes more than 10 percent to the gross domestic product. More than four million workers, mostly women, are employed in this sector. With over 4,500 factories of various sizes, it plays a significant role in reducing poverty in Bangladesh. But its rapid growth and the lack of enforcement of building codes and workers' rights lead to human rights abuses and unsafe factories with structural defects.

“The success of the Bangladesh apparel sector can benefit everyone - international retailers and consumers, factory owners and the government,” says Robertson. "But these profits must not be bought with the life and suffering of the workers who fight for a better future."

Selected witness statements:
“Four people held me and hit my legs with bars. They beat two others with iron bars. She was hit on the head and on the back. She had severe, profuse bleeding wounds on her arms. Some fingers were broken. It was sewn with 14 stitches on the head. When they beat up Mira, they said, 'You want to unionize? Then we'll bathe you in blood. "
- Mitu Datta, a worker in a textile factory in Chittagong, describes the attack on himself and his wife outside the factory.

“In our factory, 80 percent of the workers are women. If they get pregnant, the management doesn't care about maternity leave and support. When we protested, our supervisor scolded us with words like, 'If you're just fucking around all the time, why are you working here? Disappears and works in the brothel. ‘"
- A worker in a factory in Dhaka.

“They started hitting me, slapping me on the face and pushing me around. They punched me in the chest, in the side, and I fell. Then they kicked me. I screamed the whole time ... "
- A Dhaka factory worker recounts how he was beaten after advocating for a colleague who did not receive the benefit he was entitled to after being fired.