It’s often suggested that Bangladesh‘s Ready-Made Garment (RMG) industry isn’t engaged in a race to the bottom: it’s already got there! The devastating Tazreen Fashions factory fire last month which killed 112 was just one demonstration of the effect (and there have been many others over the years.) Western companies have tried to escape responsibility, using a series of buck-passing and excuses, the worst of which is that it’s impossible to monitor health and safety in so many factories so far away (despite their fingertip control on the designs, deadlines and prices!)
But the main reason Bangladesh seems unable to progress beyond the health and safety standards that were prevalent in US and European textile factories a century ago is because of the way workers are prevented from organising themselves into trade unions. Now the Dhaka-based Financial Express has reported that over the past three years, 450 applications to register trade union branches in the industry have been turned down by the Directorate of Labour (DoL), often for reasons that were nothing to do with the law.
The DoL records just 149 union branches in the 5000 RMG factories in Bangladesh.Unions are now wary of submitting such applications because they fear reprisals. The Financial Express quotes Babul Akther, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Association (BGIWA) who told them that over 250 workers who had submitted applications to get their trade union registered with the DoL have lost their job during last two and half years.
As well as health and safety issues, the absence of trade unions in these factories allows owners to get away without paying minimum wages, and to sack pregnant workers rather than honour their maternity rights.
So, if you got any ready-to-wear Christmas presents from Bangladesh this year, you might want to start asking questions about the conditions under which they were made. And back the global union demand for companies like Wal-Mart/ASDA to stop making millions out of Bangladeshi misery.