Apparel working conditions still poor: HRW

Garment workers in Bangladesh still face poor working conditions and anti-union tactics by employers, including assaults on union organisers, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released in Dhaka yesterday.

                In the two years since more than 1,100 workers died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building on April 24, 2013, efforts are underway to make Bangladeshi factories safer.

But the government and Western retailers can and should do more to enforce international labour standards to protect workers' rights, including their right to form unions and advocate for better conditions.

“If Bangladesh wants to avoid another Rana Plaza disaster, it needs to effectively enforce its labour law and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of HRW. 

“If Bangladesh does not hold accountable the factory managers who attack workers and deny the right to form unions, the government will perpetuate practices that have cost the lives of thousands of workers.”

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 them making garments for retailers in North America, Europe and Australia.

The interviews were conducted between October 2013 and April 2015 and the report was published at a press conference at Dhaka Reporters Unity.

Workers report violations including physical assault, verbal abuse -- sometimes of a sexual nature -- forced overtime, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full.

Despite the recent labour law reforms, many workers who try to form unions to address such abuse face threats, intimidation, dismissal, and sometimes physical assault at the hands of factory management or hired third parties, the report said.

While changes to some labour laws since the Rana Plaza incident, including provisions easing the union registration process, have facilitated registration of new unions, still fewer garment factories in Bangladesh have unions.

After the Rana Plaza collapse, around 300 trade unions received registration, which is less than 3 percent of the total garment factories in the country, said Alonzo Suson, Bangladesh country director of Solidarity Centre.

The rejection rate in trade union applications by the labour ministry has also increased in recent times; the rate was 19 percent in 2013, 31 percent in 2014 and 56 percent in January-April this year, he said. “It's very concerning.”

Union leaders told the HRW that they continue to be targeted by factory management, risking abuse by both managers and supervisors, or thugs acting at their behest, according to the report. 

In some factories, workers leading efforts to form unions have been dismissed for their organising activities, said Babul Akhter, president of Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation.

Workers are not getting any remedy after reporting such irregularities to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association and the labour ministry, he said. 

The HRW called upon the government, factory owners, and Western retailers to ensure respect for workers' rights and end the unlawful targeting of labour leaders by factory owners and supervisors.

The government should carry out effective and impartial investigations into all workers' allegations of mistreatment, including beatings, threats, and other abuses, and prosecute those responsible, Robertson said.

The HWR report also examines the aftermath of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions disasters. Three separate initiatives to inspect the factories for safety are underway, by the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and by government inspectors, supported by the ILO.

Survivors told the HRW that the compensation they have received until now is not sufficient to pay their medical bills and cover their loss of livelihood.

An independent commission has estimated that $30 million needs to be paid to the survivors of the Rana Plaza incident and the dependants of those who died. But only about $21 million has been paid or pledged as of March 2015, it said.

For the victims of the Tazreen Fashions fire, the situation is worse in the absence of a sustained campaign for compensation, such as in the case of the Rana Plaza collapse.

In November 2014, European retailer C&A pledged a “significant amount towards full and fair compensation” for the victims of Tazreen, and the Hong-Kong-based company Li & Fung made a donation to support the victims soon after the disaster. However, several other companies have paid nothing, claiming the factory was making or storing their products without their knowledge or authorisation.

The apparel industry accounts for almost 80 percent of the country's export earnings and contributes to more than10 percent of the gross domestic product, employing more than four million workers, a majority of whom are women. 


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