WASHINGTON — Workers’ rights abuses persist in Bangladesh apparel factories even as international retailers and brands actively engage in instituting safety reforms following two industrial tragedies, according to a new report by the International Labor Rights Forum.
The report, titled “Our Voices, Our Safety. Bangladeshi Workers Speak Out,” charges that a “climate of fear and intimidation” prevails in Bangladesh’s garment industry.
Compiled by the ILRF , a human rights organization in collaboration with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the report is based on interviews with more than 70 workers and union representatives between October 2014 and January 2015. The majority of the workers quoted in the story spoke under assumed names and their faces were blacked out in the photos to protect their identities, according to the report. Only three workers, all of whom are also union members, spoke under their own names and were openly pictured in photos.
“The workers we interviewed describe a chilling web of social relations of intimidation and violence that spans factories and apparel companies, workers’ communities, government agencies, law enforcement, and even their families,” according to the executive summary in the report. “The effect of this web is that workers are silenced.”
Many of the allegations center around worker reports about reprisals related to attempts to organize unions but a multitude of other abuses were also detailed, ranging from forced overtime to extremely low wages and sexual harassment.
“Workers report production targets and workloads so high managers prevent them from taking necessary restroom breaks, drinking water, leaving the factory at a reasonable hour, or getting leaves from work to attend to their own or their family members’ medical emergencies,” the ILRF said. “They speak about wages so low they are effectively trapped in abusive conditions, and about sexual harassment and abuse for which the victims are blamed.”
Retailers, brands, the government of Bangladesh, the International Labor Organization and scores of international unions and other governments and nongovernmental organizations have been working for two-and-a-half years to implement fire, electrical and structural reforms in an estimated 4,000 apparel factories in Bangladesh. The global efforts were initiated in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013 that claimed the lives of 1,133 people and injured hundreds of others, and the Tazreen Fashions fire, which killed 112 workers in November 2012. The two tragedies sparked a global outcry about safety in Bangladesh and prompted retailers and brands making clothing in those factories to launch two initiatives aimed at inspecting hundreds of factories and remediating serious safety problems.
The initiatives are the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a consortium of more than 200 companies including H&M, Carrefour, Inditex, Primark, C&A and Marks & Spencer, from more than 20 countries, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a separate group of 26 major global brands and retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target, J.C. Penney and VF Corp., mostly from North America.
Labor and human rights groups have kept a close eye on those initiatives, which have made progress in inspecting more than 2,500 factories combined and improving inadequate fire, electrical and safety conditions in Bangladesh’s apparel industry.
While the ILRF acknowledged in the report that progress has been made in addressing the pervasive fire and structural hazards, the group argues that the issues of workers’ rights and participation in their own safety at the factories have not been addressed.
“These renovations and repairs must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety,” the report said. “A next phase of reforms must instill the lessons that respect for workers is as important to safety as are fire exits, that workers’ perspectives on safety are as important as the findings of building engineers. Without it, workers’ lives and health will continue to be in jeopardy.”
In one chapter, titled “Owners, Thugs and Police,” the report alleges that factory managers use a variety of methods to intimidate, threaten and beat workers who become union leaders or seek to unionize. According to the report, garment factory owners in Bangladesh have close ties to politicians, with at least 30 owners or family members holding seats in parliament. The owners use their political clout and positions to retaliate against workers seeking to organize or form unions, the report alleged.
Several workers reported the kinds of retaliation and harassment they were subjected to when trying to organize a union.
Aleya Akter, one of the few workers who agreed to use her own name and whose story is featured in the preface of the report, shared details of alleged harassment when first trying to organize workers at her factory. Akter is now the general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation and is employed at Lufa Garments. She was a sewing operator but is now a union steward at the factory.
“I was severely beaten when I tried to bring together workers to make them understand why it’s necessary to form a union,” Akter said. “I was beaten on three occasions from 2006 to 2007….They would say: ‘You’re thinking outside the box. You should not form a union. Don’t do this.’”
The report draws a distinction between the two industry initiatives and is highly critical of the Alliance’s approach to worker participation. An entire chapter has been devoted to outlining how the Alliance’s worker “hotlines” and participation committees fall short of enacting real change for workers. Workers reported they believed trade unions would better represent their interests.
The ILRF is a witness signatory to the Accord and has long criticized the Alliance for a lack of union representation and worker participation.
The report holds up the Accord as a “ model for worker participation” in a separate chapter, noting that it is a “power-sharing agreement between apparel companies and unions,” whose premise is that “companies and worker organizations should engage as equals in solving safety problems.”
A spokesman for the Alliance declined to comment on the report because the group had not yet seen it.
The ILRF and BCWS called on all public and private stakeholders to end retaliation against workers and “begin a new phase of social safety reforms” to address “intimidation and violence that keep workers silent.”
“The next phase of safety reforms should build on the progress achieved under the Accord,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the ILRF. “The goal should be an end to the reprisals against workers who make their voices heard, and a safe working environment where factory owners and managers engage with workers with mutual respect.”
Gearhart, echoing recommendations in the the report, said: “The Bangladeshi government must register unions according to the law, and investigate and publicly denounce factory owners for using thugs to silence workers through violence and intimidation.
“Factory owners must adopt a zero-tolerance policy for managers who threaten or inflict violence against workers, and urge the industry associations to do the same toward their members,” Gearhart said. “Apparel brands and retailers must reform their purchasing practices to cease commercial demands that contribute to the silencing of workers, committing instead to prices and delivery times in line with the cost and time of producing goods in compliance with all safety and labor regulations.”
The full report can be found at http://laborrights.org/ourvoices