Demands from global retailers in support of labor in the garment industry in Bangladesh continue to resound in the aftermath of the factory shutdown in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka, in December.

Although the issue was resolved within two weeks as factories reopened and workers returned to their jobs, union leaders and retailers have been demanding a better system to redress injustices in labor.

In a letter addressed to prime minister Sheikh Hasina by the steering committee of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety global retailers called for the release of detained worker leaders after the December unrest in Ashulia, and a wage review mechanism to address the increased cost of living in Bangladesh.

The Accord is a consortium of more than 200 global brands and retailers, which was started after the collapse of the eight story Rana Plaza building in April 2013, in which more than 1,100 workers lost their lives.

Expressing concern about recent detentions and termination from employment of individuals with union affiliation and who promote worker’s rights, the letter cited “credible reports that 14 such persons had been detained or arrested since December 2016 and that 11 of these remain in police custody.”

It further pointed out that a few of these had been subjected to beatings and/or threats; that approximately 1,500 workers had been terminated from their employment at several Ashulia garment factories and that more than 700 more persons faced court allegations and potential arrest related to this unrest.

Calling for the prime minister to take immediate action to ensure protection of garment workers’ rights, the retailers also asked that the industry, particularly Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association to engage, suggesting that employers were reportedly and questionably using the industry unrest as a basis for mass termination of union-supportive garment workers.

“The Accord Steering Committee strongly encourages the Government of Bangladesh to convene a wage board for the garment sector with the firm belief that adopting a regular wage review mechanism will help foster needed stability in the Bangladeshi garment sector and address root causes that have led to similar undesirable and unacceptable situations in the Bangladesh RMG industry in the recent past. Such situations damage the industry’s reputation and confidence levels which we, together with the Government and social partners, are all working so hard to bolster,” the letter noted.

Pointing out that maintaining safety and labor rights was essential for the ambitious goals of a $50 billion garment industry by 2021, the Accord reiterated it’s support for the industry.

“The steering committee felt that the developments were significant enough that the Accord should communicate to the prime minister,” Rob Wayss of the Accord told WWD.

Asked if the number of detainees had changed in the last week, Wayss observed that they had not, to his knowledge. “My understanding is that there were 11 or 12 in remaining custody. I don’t know of any changes to that. The information we are getting on that is from our labor colleagues but my understanding on that is there were well over a 1,000 people who were affected with termination and my understanding is that large numbers of them still haven’t returned to work. I don’t know definitively but I think some have negotiated settlements with their employers and have accepted termination for a settlement,” he said.

Swedish retailer H&M posted a detailed comment on it’s web site. “In a joint letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh we requested that the Government takes steps to ensure the protection of the workers’ rights, with special attention to the legitimate representatives of the workers who were arrested.”

“We also made clear that while we do not support any illegal strikes or violent protests, we do recognize that the root cause of the unrest must be addressed through social dialog; improving the dialog on the labour market,” the Swedish retailer noted.

Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of garments in the world, after China, and the industry accounts for 83 percent of Bangladesh total exports. The sector employs 4.5 million workers, more than 80 percent of which are women.

This week, on Tuesday, speaking at a workshop at the 47th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, prime minister Sheikh Hasina noted that her government was “highly committed to ensure compliance with regard to labor rights, workplace safety and environmental standard in the industry.”

Her words have been heard with care, and some hostility as many stakeholders agree that it is time for more than just rhetoric, and that labor issues need to be given a hard look once again.

“The general expectation is that these issues of unrest or agitation [are] handled in a more constructive manner,” Srinivas Reddy, country director, International Labour Organization Bangladesh told WWD. “From ILO we are advising the government to make a consultative process on a more sustainable basis. The government has agreed to form a tripartite committee for the garment sector, which was reiterated this week. A permanent forum needs to be constituted, which would alleviate the crisis management. The committee will meet regularly to discuss important issues,” he said.

While demands for an increase in wages to meet inflation have been growing, the last wage increase had earlier been in 2013, preceded by 2010 and 2006. The last revision of the minimum wages brought the figure up to 5,300 taka or $68 per month, an increase of 77 percent over the previous monthly minimum wage.

Workers are demanding that this be increased to 16,000 taka or $201.48 per month.

The issues have come to the forefront after workers in Ashulia went on strike on December 21, followed by a shutdown of 55 factories by factory owners, invoking Section 13(1) of the labor law for an indefinite shut down. The matter was resolved after negotiation between trade unions and the BGMEA, and BGMEA officials said that more than 90 percent of the work force returned to work when factories opened in end-December and that they were finding ways to find better solutions for the future as well.

Mahmud Hasan Khan, vice president BGMEA told WWD that while global retailers were quick to listen to workers when they raised their voices, it was only fair that they also heard out the perspective of the factory owners. “If you hear only one side, you cannot reach a conclusion,” he said. “From the beginning we have told workers that a revision of minimum wages happens every five years. However, the government can raise it if it is the right time to revise.”

Khan observed that although global retailers pushed for higher wages for workers, they were not willing to pay more for manufacture, and instead insisted that there was potential competition from other countries, such as India and China.

Meanwhile, factory owners have been investing in improving factories, he said, adding that the Accord and the Alliance had a lot of demands of Bangladesh in terms of factory improvement, “but they are not making the same demands in other countries,” he observed.

However, even as factory compliance  and worker safety issues continue to improve, the issue of labor rights has come up repeatedly as a stumbling block.

“Moving ahead, it is very important to promote the social dialog process. Trade unions should have a forum to be able to bring these matters up instead of having to resort to the factory floor,” Reddy remarked.

Although social dialog appears to be a longer-term solution, trade union leaders called for a more urgent handling of the situation this week, citing the fact that hundreds of garment workers had not resumed work for fear of intimidation and that more than 20 union leaders had been detained for questioning.

Leaders of the Bangladesh Garment Sramik Sanghati and other groups told WWD that they contacted the BGMEA, asking for bilateral discussions and a resolution with the same three demands that the Accord listed in its letter to the prime minister — calling for an unconditional release of arrested labor leaders, withdrawal of false cases, formation of a new wage board and fixing 16,000 taka as minimum monthly wage.

They raised the issue of harassment by factory owners and that they were not being granted leave and gratuity that had already been agreed upon.

Some union leaders complained that output targets had been increased after the last wage increase in 2013, as had in some cases, forced overtime. They said that suspended workers include 154 workers by Shade Fashion; 143 by the Sharmin Group; 227 by the Rose Islam Group 227: 177 by Dekko Design; 150 by Windy Apparel, and 135 by Fountain Garment.

Moving beyond the social dialog process, and in a bid for more consolidated action, IndustriALL Global Union along with UNI Global Union launched an online campaign on Thursday, calling on the government of Bangladesh to “immediately and unconditionally release garment trade union leaders detained in recent weeks.”

“In an alarming step backwards for worker rights and democracy in the country, at least 11 trade union leaders and worker activists have been arrested. At the same time, security forces have raided the houses of trade union leaders and volunteers, and many have gone into hiding in fear of their safety,” IndustriALL said in a statement, adding that trade union offices in Ashulia, the garment-producing hub of the capital Dhaka, have been invaded, vandalized and forcibly shut down, with membership documents burned and furniture removed.

Although these numbers vary greatly according to government sources, factory owners and the social sector, IndustriALL has listed more than 1,600 workers as having been fired, with police cases filed against 600 workers and trade union leaders.

A new briefing document from the Solidarity Centre on Saturday detailed the intimidation, arrests and firing that followed the garment worker walk-out in December as well. Calling for the Bangladesh government and the BGMEA to “stop the intimidation campaign, respect workers’ legal right to unionize and bargain with employers, negotiate with unions that represent workers’ interests and raise the garment sector minimum wage.” The Centre warned that the “broad crackdown on garment workers, union leaders and worker rights activists in Bangladesh marks a troubling escalation of workers to silence garment workers.”

Calling for brands to intervene to win release of imprisoned labor leaders, the Clean Clothes Campaign said that more than 22 human and labor rights organizations from around the world are calling on international apparel brands to press for the release of unjustly imprisoned Bangladeshi union leaders and workers’ rights advocates.

In a letter to more than 60 brands and retailers on Thursday, the human and labour rights organizations noted that a Jan. 4 joint brand letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh was a positive first step, but that more concerted action was “urgently needed,” with at least two of the detained labor leaders reportedly “badly beaten while in custody, and at least one has been threatened with death.”

The joint NGO letter noted, “Prolonged detention of labor leaders and striking workers will cause further reputational damage of Bangladesh and companies sourcing from the country, and will discourage labor activists’ ability from exercising their fundamental rights of expression and association.”

Separately, the International Labor Rights Forum said in a statement on Thursday, that “the new round of attacks against trade union organizations represents a clear step backwards for the Bangladesh garment industry. Even before this crackdown, both the International Labor Organization and the European Union had acknowledged the government’s failure to protect the right to freedom of association for Bangladeshi workers and urged the government to take concrete steps to ensure its laws and practice are in line with international standards.”

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