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Human Rights Watch: Bangladesh Union Reps Threatened By Violence, Murder

In sharp contrast to recent reports of Bangladesh’s long-awaited progress reforming its factory safety and labor conditions, a recent report uncovered chilling patterns of worker abuse in more than twenty factories.

Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental agency headquartered in New York, surveyed forty-seven workers in twenty-one factories either within or in close proximity to Dhaka, the nation’s capital. The report the organization issued, based on the interviews conducted, details a litany of labor abuses including the intimidation of workers with the threat of violence and murder and the rampant sexual harassment of female employees.

According to a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, union representatives were targeted for especially aggressive treatment. “The workers claimed that some managers intimidate and mistreat employees involved in setting up unions, including threatening to kill them.” And, apparently, the threats dispensed were not always empty. “Some union organizers said they were beaten up, and others said they had lost their jobs or had been forced to resign. Factory owners sometimes used local gangsters to threaten or attack workers outside the workplace, including at their homes, they said.”

The report is a grim correction to more optimistic signs of momentum regarding the improvement of Bangladesh’s labor conditions. Just recently, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (AFBSB) finally arrived at an agreement regarding the new inspection standards that will apply to all its signatory members.

These standards largely apply to factory building safety with particular reference to fire and electrical ordinances. As AFBSB’s website explains, the new strictures are the result of a collaborative effort that involved input from several sources: the National Tripartite Plan of Action, the Alliance for Bangladeshi Worker Safety (ABWS) and the International Labor Organization. The final product is based on the existing Bangladesh National Building Code, albeit in thoroughly revised form.

Also, Bangladesh’s International Apparel Federation (IAF) was recently awarded a grant from the European Union (E.U.) to improve the South Asian nation’s jerry-built infrastructure. The grant to the IAF is also extended to two of its member associations, the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) and the Hellenic Clothing Industry Association (HCIA). The scope of the project funded by the E.U. is wide including the building of additional capacity, the updating of knowledge transfer technology, the extension of existing networks, and access to various training seminars to be held in both Europe and Bangladesh.

And the E.U. just decided to leave unrevised Bangladesh’s coveted special status under its Generalized System of Preferences program (GSP), a designation revoked by the U.S. last year. Rumors have swirled that, as a symbolic show of protest against Bangladesh’s crawling progress toward improved factory safety and labor conditions, the E.U. might pull its duty free access to European markets, including apparel products. A member of the WTO since 1995, Bangladesh benefits from the E.U.’s “Everything But Arms” arrangement, which allows it duty free access for all exports, excluding arms and ammunition. And while the U.S. has suspended duty free access for Bangladesh until it improves factory safety, this has little effect on the garment industry since it only applies to goods like golf equipment, kitchen appliances and ceramics. Bangladesh’s garment industry has never qualified for duty free access to the U.S. market.

Nevertheless, E.U. Ambassador to Bangladesh William Hanna offered some pointed criticisms of Bangladesh’s schedule for reform. Specifically, he complained that it was adding much needed factory inspectors at too slow a pace and that the creation of a comprehensive database of garment factories must be developed more quickly.

Despite struggling with political instability and now infamously poor working conditions, Bangladesh continues to be a magnet for apparel suppliers. Its readymade garment exports climbed nearly 20 percent year-on-year during the first half of 2013. From July to December 2013, garment exports hit $11.93 billion, a significant improvement over the same period the previous year, which achieved $9.95. Exports of woven garments did particularly well, leaping 20.37% to $5.98 billion while knitwear exports increased by 19.55% to $5.95 billion. The Bangladesh government expects total garment exports this year to increase a little more than 12 percent to approximately $24 billion.

Bangladesh labor secretary Mikail Shipar, who has yet to see the Human Rights Watch report, said, “We are actively working to improve workers’ rights after Rana Plaza incident and have made significant development. After amendment of the labor law, ninety-nine trade unions have so far been registered. Sixteen trade unions complained against their owners and we are investigating this.”

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