WASHINGTON — U.S. retailers and apparel companies are taking a proactive stance against reports of police and government repression of garment workers and arrests of union activists in Bangladesh.
The American Apparel & Footwear Association sent a letter to Bangladesh’s ambassador to the U.S., Akramul Qader, on Wednesday, expressing its concerns about the reports.
“This repression has reportedly included arrests, intimidation, harassment and other measures that cause serious apprehension among our members, many of whom are major buyers and producers of garments in Bangladesh,” said Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the AAFA, in the letter. “We hope the government will represent the rule of law and follow a peaceful approach in responding to these ongoing protests. More importantly, we urge the government to constructively engage all stakeholders — workers, producers and buyers — in order to resolve the RMG [Ready Made Garment factories] wage issue as soon as possible.”
Burke said he had “grave concerns” in particular that the registration to operate for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a leading labor rights nongovernmental organization, was canceled by the Bangladesh government on June 3 and that the “BCWS had been informed its property and funds will be confiscated.”
He also said if reports that one or more BCWS staffers were detained are true, it is “unacceptable” and the government’s justifications for the arrests and warrants are, “at best, equally nontransparent and also appear to be without merit.”
The Bangladesh government moved to increase the country’s minimum wage in the garment industry in July, following months of widespread violent protests by workers and their union, but the protests have continued amidst widespread reports of worker repression and intimidation and union arrests.
A group of 19 House lawmakers in the International Workers Rights Caucus sent its own letter to six U.S. retailers and apparel brands making apparel in Bangladesh, calling on them to speak out publicly against the alleged persecution of labor activists there.
“As a company with a significant purchasing operation in Bangladesh, we believe that your renewed commitment to upholding and honoring basic labor rights will bring stability and security to the garment industry and the nation as a whole,” the caucus said in six separate letters to the chief executive officers of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., J.C. Penney Co., H&M, Cintas Corp., Sears Holdings Corp. and VF Corp. “It is crucial that the Bangladesh government understand that the major American retailers will not be able to maintain the current level of business with Bangladesh unless the charges are dropped and persecution of labor leaders stops immediately.”
The lawmakers implored the companies to take three specific steps: make public statements to their supply chain partners that the persecution of Bangladesh’s labor rights leaders will negatively affect the industry and future business; suspend all current and future orders with the Nassa Group and Envoy Group — two apparel factory conglomerates in Bangladesh — until the charges against union leaders have been dropped, and contact the Bangladesh government to ask for the release of two arrested labor leaders with the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity.
“H&M is strongly opposed to all forms of violence and it is with great concern that we have observed the civil unrest in connection with the recent wage negotiations, where factory workers and labor activists have been dismissed and/or arrested,” an H&M spokeswoman said.
She said H&M is writing a letter to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to address concerns about the BCWS and criminal charges.
“We urge the government of Bangladesh to ensure that all accused individuals and organizations receive fair and proper treatment,” the H&M spokeswoman said. “We hope and are confident that the government of Bangladesh and all other involved parties will take peaceful and constructive measures to prevent any further violence so that the apparel sector and its employees can go back to a normal and stable condition.”
“We are not familiar with the letter you reference, but Wal-Mart’s sourcing decisions reflect our values and demonstrate respect for workers throughout the supply chain,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. “Compliance with laws and regulations is an integral part of our business practices. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart participated in a letter from leading brands and retailers encouraging the Bangladesh government to review the minimum wages for workers in the garment industry to ensure worker needs are met as well as a built-in mechanism for a yearly review of the minimum wages,” he said, adding the company will continue to monitor progress in Bangladesh.
A J.C. Penney spokeswoman said the company is committed to working with suppliers in which legal requirements and worker rights are respected.
“We will not do business with suppliers that cannot or will not make this same commitment,” she said. “The economic, political, social and labor situation in Bangladesh creates sourcing challenges for U.S. retailers, so it is important to our company to continue working with interested parties and stakeholders to develop a forum for open and transparent dialogue, with the goal of resolving disputes to the benefit of all concerned.”
“Recently, J.C. Penney joined other retailers that purchase products from Bangladesh suppliers in supporting an increase in wages for textile and apparel workers,” she added.
Cintas Corp. said in a statement that it is committed to conducting business in a “lawful, ethical and moral manner in all countries,” and is currently conducting annual audits of its suppliers, including those in Bangladesh, to ensure that they live up to the company’s vendor code of conduct.