Industry statements about Bangladesh crackdown belie fashion brands’ abject failure to protect their garment workers

In the wake of the fundamentally flawed Bangladesh minimum wage protest of 2023 that led to the setting of another poverty wage, the government of Bangladesh cracked down hard on workers’ protests. Criminal charges, often filed by suppliers to major international brands, are now hanging over the heads of tens of thousands of workers. Yet, through recent industry statements, brands attempt to wash their hands of the responsibility for both the setting of yet another wage that leaves workers unable to put enough food on the table and of the legal threats now facing them.
Workers during the October protests.

In February and early March, 45 major fashion and sportswear brands, including H&M, Zara, Next, North Face (VF Corp.), and Gap, received communication from organisations within the Clean Clothes Campaign network, demanding they compel their Bangladeshi suppliers to drop these baseless criminal charges filed against workers and labour leaders during the 2023 protests calling for a higher minimum wage.

To date, only a handful of brands have met this request to respect their workers’ basic human rights, by pressuring their suppliers to take such action. The vast majority of brands have shirked responsibility by falsely claiming that their suppliers aren’t involved, defending their suppliers’ filing of criminal cases, and/or denying that the charges are being used as a tool of systematic retaliation against workers who demonstrated for higher wages, or not answering at all. Many others stated that their sole response was to involve the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) or the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) to issue a joint statement on their behalf.

Last week’s statements from AAFA and the ETI omitted that their concerns about the mass criminalisation of garment workers were in response to a push from rights groups directed at their member brands – many of which continue to take little action to compel their suppliers to drop false charges as a condition of continuing business with them. While both groups directed their calls to stop the criminalisation of workers to the Bangladesh Government, most criminal cases, at least 26, have been filed by factory owners producing for AAFA and ETI member brands, not the police who have filed at least 6. In this context, unless AAFA and ETI members require their suppliers to withdraw cases, the notes of concern ring hollow.

Filing baseless criminal cases that accuse workers generically, and without individualised evidence, of inciting vandalism and other serious crimes is a page from the well-worn playbook used by the Bangladesh Government and garment factory owners to repress freedom of association and maintain poverty wages in the industry. These charges against unnamed workers pose a threat to any worker who steps out of line, Even with the increase to a monthly wage of 12,500 BDT ($113), Bangladeshi workers earn among the lowest wages in the world, less than neighbouring Pakistan and India, and even less than Cambodia and Indonesia.

The refusal of international brands, garment manufacturers in Bangladesh, and the country’s government to meaningfully support an increase in the legal minimum wage to a sustainable level for workers and their families led to a wave of labour protests during last year’s minimum wage setting process that takes place every five years. Workers were not included in the process and were therefore left with no choice but to demonstrate on the street for their target wage of at least 23,000 BDT ($208) despite risks.

Both manufacturers and the government responded to the workers’ demand with harsh and violent repression which saw four workers killed, hundreds injured, and 40,000 at risk of false arrest under at least 35 baseless criminal charges that left dozens of workers jailed for months, including four union leaders.

Brands’ failure to protect workers’ basic rights, despite the clear threat of violent repression, constituted the industry’s tacit approval of the excessive response to these protests - a response that was predictable given the similar repression against workers that took place during the last minimum wage setting process in 2018.

In general, there is no evidence of workers being implicated in criminal conduct of the type and to the degree that factories are alleging in their recent complaints. Many workers arrested under serious charges of assault and attempted murder were not even in the vicinity of protests they are alleged to have taken part in. These cases are being brought based not on facts, or to hold individuals accountable for criminal activity, but rather, to intimidate and discourage dissent.

The four workers who died (Rasel Howlader, 26, Jalal Uddin, 40, Anjuara Khatun, 23, Imran Hossain, 32) produced for international brands including H&M, Zara, C&A, Bestseller and Walmart. Each of these brands has thus far refused to provide compensation for the families that these workers have left behind, instead pointing to the paltry compensation already received of around $4,500 as being sufficient despite falling far short of the international norms (ILO C121) used in the wake of the deadly Rana Plaza disaster. Factories failed to protect workers from the clear risk of deadly violence from police and military forces stationed in industrial areas and closed their factories without notice or assistance to workers, exposing them to serious danger.

As Bogu Gojdź, Public Outreach Coordinator from Clean Clothes Campaign said: “Brands have a chance to make up for their silence during the workers’ wage struggle to at least sure that workers will not go to jail for standing up for their right to a wage they can survive on, most are still refusing to act. Some brands have used their leverage with suppliers to ensure cases are dropped, but most act like protecting freedom of association is irrelevant. We will be publicly releasing a tracker of how they have responded, brands have until 8 April to ensure they end up on the positive side of that list”.

Thulsi Narayanasamy, Director of International Advocacy from US labour investigative organisation, Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) said: “The systematic punishment of workers for speaking out against a poverty wage cannot be separated from brands’ unwillingness to use their leverage to protect the rights of workers in their supply chains. We have gathered harrowing testimony from workers and union leaders impacted by violence and horrifying weeks in jail and all of this is connected to supply chains of international brands”.

Anna Bryher, Policy Lead from UK advocacy group Labour Behind the Label Quote said: “The silence of the brands on these issues and their slowness to respond amounts to complicity in human rights violations. Where are the brands in making sure that suppliers drop the blanket legal charges against workers who protested against poverty pay? Repression is predictable, and it shouldn’t take rights groups having to fight for these vile legal cases to be dropped, for brands and the ETI to take notice and start work”.

Media contacts:

Clean Clothes Campaign: Bogu Gojdź:

Worker Rights Consortium: Thulsi Narayanasamy:

Labour Behind the Label: Anna Bryher:

published 2024-03-19