Protests during a 2014 strike over unpaid wages at a garment producer. Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images
Bangladesh textile workers face layoffs & prosecutions: global corporates must act
Thousands of textile workers in the Dhaka suburb of Ashulia in Bangladesh have been sacked following protracted strikes this month over wages and other issues. The legitimate claims of workers in the country’s most important export industry – supplying high street stores across the developed world such as Gap, Zara and H&M – have been met by police and political harassment of trade unions, and the dismissal of between 1,600 and 3,500 workers.
War-time legislation has been used on the basis that the industrial unrest is a danger to national security: something more true of the extreme exploitation, bribery and corruption of manufacturing employers.
In November, Garment Sramik Front, one of Bangladesh’s many textile unions (the profusion of unions results largely from political interference and repressive union laws designed to split workers up – there are 15-20 unions in Ashulia alone) held a conference that called for the minimum wage for textile workers to be tripled from 5,300 taka (under £60) a month to Tk16,000 (£176). When word of the call reached workers in Ashulia, strikes began to break out – but there were also complaints about unpaid wages, sackings and harassment of workers.
After 10 days of strikes began on 12 December, closing over 80 factories, the Government called on employers to reopen the factories. Union leaders’ homes are being ransacked in the search for people to arrest and prosecute, and the assailants include not only the police, but activists in the governing Awami League party. Fifteen battalions of the Border Guards Bangladesh (a government militia formerly known as the Bangladesh Rifles) have been deployed.
The Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation head, Babul Akhter, said authorities had shut down the protests by using a controversial wartime-era law intended to deal with threats to state security.
“They used [the] Special Powers Act to detain union leaders and workers. Up to 3,500 workers have been sacked and 50 leaders have gone into hiding.”
Instead of refusing to negotiate, sacking striking workers and pursuing union leaders through the courts, manufacturing employers should seek a peaceful resolution to the legitimate demands of their workforce.
And global corporations buying from the Bangladesh textile industry have a role to play in insisting that dismissed workers be rehired, and genuine collective bargaining established, including social dialogue with government over the minimum wage which is one of the lowest in Asia, and certainly not enough to live on.