ILRF Report from 2010 Reveals Repression of Garment Labor Activists in Bangladesh

Garment worker woes, in Bangladesh, are not a recent development. In this report from the International Labor Rights Forum in 2010, the suffering and repression of factory labor in Bangladesh is made apparent. Their meager monthly wage of $43 not only far behind their demand for $72, but was also nutritionally less than prisoners in the country! Trade union leaders and human rights groups that challenged their unfair situation were subjugated. The recipe was ripe for disaster and it hit three years later.

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November 1, 2010 – A report by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released today reveals a severe government crackdown on labor rights activists in Bangladesh in the last few months as the country’s garment workers demanded higher wages.  Bangladeshi garment workers are the worst paid workers in the world.    Worker protest against low wages and poor working conditions peaked in early August this year following the government’s announcement of a new $43 monthly minimum wage, well short of workers’ needs and expectations.  The new wage is scheduled to take effect today.

“We were forced to take to the streets as the owners exploited us right under the government’s nose,” said a garment worker quoted in The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi newspaper, after the government announcement of the new minimum wage.

According to the ILRF report, Enemies of the Nation or Human Rights Defenders? Fighting Poverty Wages in Bangladesh, the new $43 dollar minimum wage is still a “malnutrition wage.”  Even Bangladeshi prisoners are better off than garment workers in nutritional terms, the report claims.  It estimates a garment worker needs almost four times the new minimum wage just to feed her average-sized family.

The ILRF report criticizes the Bangladeshi government for scapegoating labor activists for inciting worker unrest and branding them “enemies of the nation” instead of dealing with workers’ genuine grievances. Focusing on the experiences of the leaders of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, one of the most prominent labor rights groups in Bangladesh, the report relates a harrowing story of persecution as Bangladeshi police and security forces, including the notorious Rapid Action Battalion, raided staff members’ homes and attempted by subterfuge to discover the hideouts of the organization’s leaders.  When captured, two of the labor leaders were tortured in custody to extract a confession that the organization had fomented worker riots.

Human rights groups, labor rights groups, and industry groups have denounced the Bangladeshi crackdown on labor rights activists.  Human Rights Watch condemned the “serious harassment of trade union leaders and other labor rights activists and workers in the ready-made garment (RMG) industry who have been pressing for the right of workers to organize in unions and seeking increases in Bangladesh’s minimum wage regulations” in a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on August 10, 2010.

The ILRF report calls on both companies and the Bangladeshi government to take action to protect civil liberties for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and other labor rights defenders and increase the minimum wage for garment workers to at least $72 per month, the workers’ demand.

“We hope that this report will help bring justice for the leaders and staff of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and, in so doing, advance the cause of Bangladeshi garment workers who seek only the basic dignity of decent work and good wages,” said Bjorn Claeson, author of the report and director of the SweatFree Communities program at ILRF.

Enemies of the Nation or Human Rights Defenders? Fighting Poverty Wages in Bangladesh is available at www.sweatfree.org/bcws.

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The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) is an advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, dedicated to achieving just and humane treatment for workers worldwide. ILRF serves a unique role among human rights organizations as advocates for and with working poor around the world. We believe that all workers have the right to a safe working environment where they are treated with dignity and respect, and where they can organize freely to defend and promote their rights and interests.

A program of the International Labor Rights Forum, SweatFree Communities, coordinates a national network of grassroots campaigns that promotes humane working conditions in apparel and other labor-intensive global industries. SweatFree campaigns build broad community support for sweatshop-free government purchasing and help build a market for decent working conditions. 

Dialogue for Change

Boston Global Forum brings together leaders and renowned professors from Harvard and MIT to lead the discussion on worker safety.

Professor Richard Locke (right) addresses the group as Governor Michael Dukakis (center) and Professor Thomas Kochan listen on.
Professor Richard Locke (far right) addresses the group as Governor Michael Dukakis (center) and Professor Thomas Kochan listen on.

July 18, 2013 Boston- To propel discussions around Boston Global Forum’s (BGF) 2013’s ‘Issue of the Year’, a group comprising BGF Chairman Michael Dukakis, BGF Executive Director, Nguyen Anh Tuan, distinguished academicians from universities like Harvard and MIT, and representatives from non-profit advocacy groups met last week in Boston to discuss Minimal Standards for Worker Safety The infamous Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 people in April 2013 is the inspiration behind BGF’s Mission for 2013.

Evoking the genesis of Boston Global Forum and its choice of mission for 2013, Governor Dukakis opened the meeting by reminding its participants that BGF was created to reach out to the entire world using information technology to initiate a global conversation around of the issue of the year.  This conversation, unlike most others, would be solution-oriented– one that results in a set of recommendations that could be “internationally enforced”.  He further added that there was a stark absence of international conversation around the issue of occupational safety, and hoped that the forum could leverage a dialogue “in a way that could build a body of law that is enforceable.”

The meeting addressed several aspects of international worker safety drawing upon examples of supply chain policies, private and public sector arrangements and trade agreements. Richard Locke, professor of Political Science at Brown University and author of The Promise & Limits of Private Power stated that the best success stories, in his understanding of the processes, lie in the combination of private and public sector interventions. While private enterprises are necessary to ensure efficiency (in keeping with their best interest), the government needs to enforce basic enabling rights for workers.   “Where you see that combination, that’s where you see success, “ adds Locke. He illustrated his theory with the Better Work Cambodia Program directed by the International Labor Organization (ILO). In this program, the United States used its markets as a “carrot” to drive improvements in working conditions and safety standards. The resulting improvement in worker safety which was made possible by the combined efforts of local governments, private business and the ILO.

The round-table, comprised of American luminaries, rebuked the response of American multinationals to the Bangladesh tragedy. “We’ve got to take advantage of putting pressure on the multinationals and the US multinationals have been slow relative to the Europeans,” said Thomas Kochan, Co-Director MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.  While European multinationals are putting pressure to change labor law in Bangladesh after the tragedy, American corporations like Walmart and Gap, are withholding involvement with trade unions on the ground or international alliances, he said. Jeffrey Stookey, former professor at Boston University augmented this idea by pointing out that European Union stopped bank loans to Bangladeshi companies that fell short of safety standards. John Quelch, professor at Havard Business School also pointed out that the US has failed in stepping up to this challenge- a behavior that is inconsistent with its reputation of a country that pioneered positive global interventions in the 20th century.

Harvard Business School Professor, John Quelch (left)  talks to MIT professors Richard Locke (center) and Thomas Kochan (right).
Harvard Business School Professor, John Quelch (left) talks to MIT professors Richard Locke (center) and Thomas Kochan (right).

The Rana Plaza factory collapse draws emphasis to the need to talk about a subject that hasn’t received enough attention. Quelch recalled his experience leading a business school in China to talk about the “less-than pleasant practices” that workers have to endure. He hoped that the Bangladesh tragedy could work as a “catalyst” to stimulate discussions on an often-overlooked issue. Professor Quelch went on to emphasize the need for legislation in bringing about any stringent change in worker safety. “Even with legislation, it’s often difficult to make things stick as well but without it I feel that, personally, it’s going be tough to keep the interest and momentum up,” he said. While addressing human rights concerns, Quelch pointed out that children have, unfortunately, been left out of conversations surrounding the Bangladesh disaster.  Rendered helpless by their vulnerability, children are often the worst victims of disasters and calamities.

Incidents like the Bangladesh disaster cannot be averted by enforcing legislation alone. MIT’s Thomas Kochan argued about the need for a bottom-up approach in addressing this subject. He stated that sustained enforcement of labor law could be achieved through the development of local institutions like trade unions, NGOs and coalitions resulting between them.

State laws within the US have attempted to ensure transparency and labor standards in procurement processes, sometimes with success. Liana Fozvog from International Labor Rights Forum  (ILRF) and Marcy Gelb from MassCOSH (Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health)  described their findings stating that several states and cities across the country have joined a sweat-free consortium that should ideally be instituted at the federal level.  In Massachusetts, laws that require disclosure of factories and apparel to be union-made are not always upheld.

Moving Forward

The meeting culminated in dialogue about future actions for Boston Global Forum. Recommendations included a ten-point plan for the Commonwealth to help position Massachusetts as a ‘best practice state’ in the field of worker safety; networking to encourage American multinational companies to participate in future meetings on compensating victims of the Bangladesh disaster; bringing together various stakeholders and actors to talk about solutions that have worked and about governments, private institutions and other organizations that are making a difference; transforming the Boston Global Forum website into an information resource for interested audiences; garnering interest and representation from the State Department or the Department of Labor in BGF’s discussions; inviting Human Rights and Business expert Michael Posner, professor at New York University’s Stern’s School of Business and former official at the State Department to join the forum; and addressing local state laws in Massachusetts that are not being effectively enforced.