Global rights groups, retailers urge govt to free union leaders | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 27, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 27, 2017

Global rights groups, retailers urge govt to free union leaders

Some 22 global human and labour rights organisations called on upwards of 60 apparel brands to put pressure on the Bangladesh government for release of imprisoned union leaders and reinstatement of 1,500 suspended workers.

The major signatories are: Human Rights Watch, Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), International Labour Rights Forum, Solidarity Centre, Work Research Foundation, Maquila Solidarity Network and Sacom.

“The Bangladeshi government and garment factory owners appear to be using the wage strike as a pretext to crack down on the labour movement,” CCC said in the joint statement.

Last month, more than 1,500 workers from a number of factories in Ashulia, known as a hub of about 350 of the most compliant garment units, were suspended for their alleged involvement in demonstrations over pay hike.

The workers demanded that the minimum salary be increased to Tk 15,000 a month from Tk 5,300 now.

Since December 21, 2016, the Bangladeshi authorities have arrested at least 12 union leaders and worker rights advocates and two workers, according to the statement.

All those detained have been denied bail and are still in custody. At least two of the detained labour leaders have reportedly been badly beaten while in custody, and another one threatened with death, CCC said.

“Prolonged detention of labour leaders and striking workers will cause further reputational damage of Bangladesh and companies sourcing from the country,” it added.

In a separate move, the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), which represents more than 1,000 brands in the US, wrote to the prime minister over the same matter on January 23.

“We believe in the rights of workers to freely associate, including associated legal protections from harassment, intimidation and termination for exercising their right to freely associate,” said Rick Helfenbein, president and chief executive of AAFA.

Conversely, the association does not condone illegal activities by workers, labour groups or factory owners and has respect for the autonomy of the Bangladesh judicial process and the institutions that administer it.

The ongoing wage concerns continue to contribute to worker unrest throughout Bangladesh, AAFA said. Subsequently, it urged the government to implement a regular and transparent wage review mechanism for the garment industry with participation of all relevant stakeholders.

A peaceful, fair and timely resolution for those arrested as well as the implementation of a regular and transparent wage review mechanism would promote both the short- and long-term health and stability of the Bangladeshi garment and footwear industry.

A timely resolution will also enable the Bangladeshi manufacturers to maintain the strong relationship they have with the AAFA member companies, Helfenbein added.

Twenty Western garment retailers wrote to the prime minister on January 11 and called for a new wage board for the workers.

The major signatories in the joint letter are: H&M, C&A, Esprit, Gap, Next, VF Corporation, Primark, Inditex and Li&Fung.

The retailers, who account for half of Bangladesh's total garment exports of about $28 billion in a year, said the unrest may damage Bangladesh's reputation as a reliable sourcing market.

The increased costs of living in Bangladesh might have contributed to the unrest and have subsequently urged the government to adopt a regular wage review mechanism.

While the brands made it clear they do not support any illegal strikes or violent protests, they expressed concern over the detention of union leaders during the unrest, the letter added.

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