Leading retailers withdraw from Bangladesh garment industry’s annual showcase event

Five leading apparel companies -- H&M, Inditex (Zara), C&A, Next and Tchibo -- have pulled out as key speakers and participants from the Dhaka Apparel Summit, organized by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Their decision to withdraw is a response to the campaign calling to an end of the of repression against the labor movement carried out by the Bangladesh government and factory owners over the last two months. These companies represent billions of dollars in annual garment purchases for Bangladeshi manufacturers.

The event, being held on February 25, is the Bangladesh garment industry’s signature annual event; the Prime Minister of Bangladesh is the keynote speaker. The Ethical Trading Initiative, representing numerous apparel brands, has also withdrawn, as has the only scheduled speaker from a labor union.

The unprecedented decision of apparel brands and other international actors to withdraw from the event is a major embarrassment for the Bangladesh government and the BGMEA. It underscores growing international concern over the deterioration of labor rights in the Bangladesh garment industry.

Following nonviolent worker protests demanding higher wages in Ashulia in December, at least 34 union leaders, organisers and workers were arrested and detained, many for over eight weeks, despite the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing. At least 1500 workers were dismissed from their jobs. Recently, the police closed down several trade union offices.  While most of the detainees were recently released on bail, in response to international pressure, they continue to face criminal charges that carry the potential of long jail sentences and must make frequent court appearances, in some cases nine times per month.

Md Ibrahim, one of the arrested union leaders, says: 'There appears to be a concerted effort by part of the industry and government to suppress any activity that seeks to enable workers to enjoy their rights...This has a chilling effect on all organising.’

The crackdown has been condemned internationally. Human Rights Watch found the circumstances of many of the arrests following the Ashulia strikes point to politically motivated abuse of police powers to retaliate against labor organizers rather than credible allegations of crimes.'  In a staff editorial, the New York Times called the government’s actions an attempt to “intimidate workers and keep Bangladesh a low-wage country.”

Mirjam van Heugten from Clean Clothes Campaign says: 'Clearly our global labour campaign #EveryDayCounts #WagesNotJail targeting the brands linked to this repression is having an impact. With this boycott of BGMEA’s summit, leading brands are sending a clear message to the BGMEA and the Bangladesh authorities: unless all detainees are released, unsubstantiated charges are dropped, and other acts of intimidation and harassment of trade unions are stopped, they cannot credibly participate in a summit on "sustainable growth" of the industry.'