Workers denied rights in Bangladesh: HRW

Enforce labour law and end mistreatment of unions, its tells govt
The Rana Plaza factory collapse on April 24, 2013 was the worst garment disaster in history, leaving more than 1,100 dead and many hundreds with devastating injuries.Star file photo

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

In the two years since the catastrophic Rana Plaza factory collapsed on April 24, 2013 claiming more than 1,100 workers lives, efforts are underway to make Bangladesh factories safer, the New York-based rights organisation said.

But the government and western retailers can and should do more to enforce international labor 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 at HRW.

“If Bangladesh does not hold factory managers accountable 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 rights body called on the Bangladesh 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.

At Rana Plaza, factory managers compelled reluctant workers to enter the building despite major cracks in the complex’s walls. At the Tazreen factory, where a fire killed at least 112 workers on November 24, 2012, managers refused to let workers escape even after the fire alarms went off. None of the factories involved had a union to represent workers to help them to push back against the managers’ deadly demands, the HRW said.

While changes to some labour laws since Rana Plaza, including provisions easing the union registration process, have facilitated registration of new unions, still fewer than 10 percent of garment factories in Bangladesh have unions, the report said.

Union leaders told the rights body that they continue to be targeted by factory management, risking abuse by both managers and supervisors, or thugs acting at their behest, it added.

In some factories, workers leading efforts to form unions have been dismissed for their organising activities but factory owners and management reject these allegations, the report claimed.

A Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) official told Human Rights Watch: “We have a bitter experience about unions. They believe they don’t need to work and they will get paid.”

 “The Bangladesh government and retailers need to ensure that factory owners and management start respecting workers’ rights, and the government must hold accountable those who abuse labor rights,” Robertson said.

“Clearly, it is not enough to focus on factory safety alone. Recent tragedies at Bangladeshi factories demonstrate that dangerous working conditions are linked to the failure to respect workers’ rights, including their right to form unions which can help them to collectively bargain for improved safety.” 

The HRW mentioned that the primary responsibility for protecting the rights of workers rests with the Bangladesh government. Since the Rana Plaza disaster, the government has taken steps to strengthen the Directorate of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, which is responsible for monitoring work place safety and compliance, and has hired more inspectors.

HRW also found that much more remains to be done to strengthen the ability of the Ministry of Labour and Employment to effectively investigate and prosecute unfair labor practices, including anti-union discrimination, intimidation, and harassment cases, and ensure inspectors strictly follow the law.

Bangladesh also ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and is required to protect the rights contained in them. Yet to date, Bangladesh’s labour laws do not fully comply with these standards, the rights body said.

Bangladesh government was urged by the HRW to carry out effective and impartial investigations into all workers’ allegations of mistreatment, including beatings, threats, and other abuses, and prosecute those responsible.

Companies sourcing from Bangladesh factories should immediately take action to ensure that factory inspections conducted on their behalf or with their support are effective in ensuring that their supplier factories comply with the companies’ codes of conduct and the Bangladesh labour law, it said.

The Human Rights Watch report also examines the aftermath of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen 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.

However, more remains to be done to adequately support the victims of the collapse of Rana Plaza and the deadly fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, the report said.

The readymade garment industry accounts for almost 80 percent of the country’s export earnings and contributes to more than10 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), employing more than four million workers, a majority of them women, it mentioned.

The industry, which includes more than 4,500 factories of various sizes, has a crucial role in alleviating poverty in Bangladesh. However, the rapid growth, as well as the failure of the Bangladesh government to enforce its building and labor regulations, resulted in worker abuse and many unsafe and poorly constructed factories.

“Continuing the economic success of the Bangladesh garment sector offers benefits for everyone – the retail companies and their consumers, factory owners, and the government,” Robertson said adding “But those gains should not come at the cost of lives and the suffering of garment workers struggling for a better future.” 

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 retail companies in North America, Europe, and Australia.


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