New York-based rights organisation Human Rights Watch has said dozens of garment workers and labour leaders are facing unfair or apparently fabricated criminal cases in Bangladesh after wage strikes in December 2016.
The rights watchdog, in a statement posted on its website on Wednesday, said arbitrary arrests by the police are growing with each passing day – nine more union organisers were arrested on February 10, taking the number of known arrests to 34.
‘The Bangladesh authorities should immediately release those still in detention and drop all politically motivated charges,’ the statement said.
‘Global brands and donors attending the February 25, 2017 Dhaka Apparel Summit hosted by the country’s garment export association should call on the government to stop all persecution of union leaders and protect workers’ freedom of association.’
‘Targeting labour activists and intimidating workers instead of addressing their wage grievances tarnishes Bangladesh’s reputation and makes a mockery of government and industry claims that they are committed to protecting worker’s rights,’ said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
‘Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh and aid donors should press the government to stop persecuting workers and labour rights activists.’
The statement said thousands of garment workers outside Dhaka, participated in wage strikes between December 11 and 19. They came from an estimated 20 factories that supply global brands based in the Ashulia industrial area.
According to information by local groups and official information, the vast majority were from factories that had no unions, it said.
‘The national union federations deny they had any role in or prior knowledge about these strikes. But the Bangladesh authorities used these strikes as a justification to arrest national union federation leaders and labour activists for ‘leading’ and ‘planning’ the strikes.’
‘Workers say that strikes are often the only means for them to raise their grievances, in part because the government and local employers retaliate against union organisers and workers trying to organise. As a result, workers are unable to bargain collectively with employers and use formal channels for addressing grievances.’
The statement said the workers coalesced behind a demand for a monthly minimum wage increase from Tk 5,300 (US$67) to Tk 15,000 ($187) or 16,000 ($200). In 2016, the Fair Labour Association found that the purchasing power of a Bangladesh factory worker’s average compensation was below the World Bank poverty line. Both the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association and the government rejected a wage review. The export association closed about 60 Ashulia factories for several days, effectively locking out thousands of workers and ending the strikes.
‘In early January 2017, about 20 global brands sourcing from Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, C&A, Next, and Primark, wrote to prime minister Sheikh Hasina supporting a wage review and expressing their concerns that union leaders and worker advocates were targeted.’
Rights groups have information about 10 criminal complaints filed in December 2016, implicating about 150 named workers and over 1,600 ‘unknown’ people for crimes, including property destruction at the factories, during the strikes, the statement continued.
‘Union leaders and organisers have also now been questioned or arrested in relation to older cases. These groups are aware of 34 people who were arrested, most of them union leaders. In addition, a journalist from the ETV, a local news channel, was arrested for reporting about the strikes. A news report from early January suggests the numbers are higher, stating the police had arrested at least 44 people and were identifying another 159 suspects. The police have not provided a full list of all those arrested and where they are being held.’
The Bangladesh authorities should stop pressing these criminal cases and hold any police officers who used forced disappearances, torture, death threats, and other abusive police practices after the Ashulia strikes accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch said donors and brands sourcing from Bangladesh have the responsibility to respect and protect workers’ rights.
‘They should call for an end to all harassment of labour leaders, workers, and journalists, including by ending the false criminal cases.’
‘Brands sourcing from Bangladesh should make binding agreements with local and global unions to protect freedom of association, modeled on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an enforceable agreement between workers and brands with a dispute resolution mechanism. Voluntary commitments in brands’ codes of conduct are ineffective to counter factory retaliation against unions,’ the statement said.
‘In the interim, brands should ensure their suppliers develop corrective action plans with worker representatives, including the option of reinstating fired workers and negotiating collective bargaining agreements to resolve wage disputes.’