Bangladeshi garment workers face mass firings and criminal charges

Since last month's wage protests began in Dhaka, Bangladesh thousands of workers along with several grass-roots worker organizations located in the region faced a series of repressive actions from their employers and the government. An estimated 2 - 3000 workers were fired, while numerous legal cases filed at the Ashulia police station accuse at least 1,500 unnamed workers and 150 named workers of vandalism, looting, threatening other workers, and assaulting factory officials. At least 13 union leaders and activists, many of whom had no association with the protests, were detained or arrested. As of January 4, 2017, at least 11 remain in police custody.

Last month, during the peak of the holiday shopping season, tens of thousands of garment workers in Ashulia, Bangladesh, who produced clothing for export, held nonviolent protests calling for a new minimum wage in the range of 15,000 to 16,000 taka (US$191-203) per month. The current 5,300 taka (US$67) monthly wage is insufficient to provide for nutritious food for a family, let alone to cover other basic household expenses.

In response to the retaliation, 26 labor rights groups, including Clean Clothes Campaign, sent a joint letter to over two dozen of the largest apparel brands and retailers that source from Bangladesh, including H&M, GAP, Inditex (Zara, Bershka), Next and C&A. This letter of December 23, 2016, calls on the companies to “immediately contact the Bangladesh government and urge them to release the detained labor leaders, disclose the whereabouts of any labor leaders or advocates who are unaccounted for, drop unsubstantiated charges against these leaders, and cease all forms of harassment and intimidation against labor activists exercise of their fundamental rights of expression and association.” We will share further updates on our website as we receive responses from the companies and we ask activists in our network to stay tuned for a possible call for action.

The government of Bangladesh has a long history of targeting independent union and worker center advocates, including through arbitrary detention, physical and psychological abuse while in detention, and possibly even assassination. In 2010, Bangladesh Garment and Independent Workers Federation (BGIWF) president Babul Akhter and Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) activists Kalpona Akter and Aminul Islam were arrested during a wage strike. While in detention, they were tortured, beaten, and threatened with death. In 2012, Aminul Islam was found brutally murdered. Human Rights Watch and other observers have noted the strong suspicion that the Bangladesh security forces were responsible for his death, and called for an independent and impartial investigation, but the Bangladesh government has done little on his case. This 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 Labour Organization (ILO) 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. If the brands sourcing from Bangladesh wish to see a more sustainable and safe garment industry, it is vital that they also demand that workers’ fundamental rights are respected.