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Bangladesh’s Women Garment Workers Bearing ‘Devastating’ Covid Impacts

A Bangladesh murder trial over fashion’s deadliest disaster resumed this week after years of appeals gridlocks.

The 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, which killed 1,134 workers and injured or maimed thousands more, threw the global garment industry’s exploitative predilections into the spotlight, forcing brands and retailers such as H&M and Walmart to grapple with widespread labor and safety issues in their supply chains like never before.

A court in 2016 had filed murder charges against 41 people, including building owner Sohel Rana and five garment-factory bosses, for greenlighting Rana Plaza’s faulty construction and ordering employees into work despite cracks appearing in its pillars and walls on the eve of the disaster. But the case stalled for five years after some of the accused filed criminal appeals with the higher courts challenging the indictments.

On Monday, a judge ordered the trial to move forward for 36 of the original defendants, three of whom have since died. Two suspended indictments will be considered separately. Chief public prosecutor Sheikh Hemayet Hossain told AFP that he wants to see the trial concluded “as quickly as possible,” noting that only Rana remains in custody while the others are free on bail. “Already too much time has been wasted,” he said.

The news comes after a study found that the South Asian nation’s women workers, who make up more than half of its 4-million-strong garment workforce, are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is now entering its third year.

Researchers at the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, the University of Aberdeen and Traidcraft Exchange U.K. conducted face-to-face interviews with female and male garment workers, factory managers, trade unions and other industry stakeholders in the eight months between November 2020 and July 2021. They said their findings show how brands’ and retailers’ post-outbreak decisions—including canceling orders, refusing to pay for completed or in-progress work and demanding retroactive discounts—have amplified their share of sexual violence and harassment, job precarity and housing and food insecurity.

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Many of these actions triggered a domino effect that led to factory closures and rampant job losses. Some employers, researchers said, used the national lockdown as an excuse to terminate workers they considered a problem, including pregnant and older women who often had their contracts canceled without compensation. Others refused to let workers return after lockdown or forced them to sign new contracts that stripped them of previously earned benefits and rights.

“The majority of workers in the RMG industry in Bangladesh are women who are young, poorly educated and from rural areas with few alternative employment options—they are especially vulnerable to exploitation,” project lead Muhammad Azizul Islam, professor in sustainability accounting and transparency at the University of Aberdeen Business School, said in a statement. “During pandemic time, workers could not afford to be sacked. These devastating impacts were heightened and, in some cases, directly caused by retailers and brands selling into the U.K. and other markets in the global North.”

Legal protections for women, the report noted, are scant and any grievance mechanisms frequently “disregarded with impunity” by many factory owners and managers. Researchers also found companies’ compliance audits to be “largely ineffective,” with roughly 20 percent of auditors not including women’s equal rights and 40 percent not examining the right to trade union recognition. While Bangladesh is signed up to international frameworks promoting gender equality, including in employment, significant regulatory and enforcement gaps still abound, they added.

At present, Bangladesh is one of the 10 worst countries for workers, according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s latest Global Rights Index, which cited the country’s “repressive laws, obstacles to union formation, and brutal repression of strikes.” It’s also ranked 171 out of 190 countries on the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 Index, which measures the laws and regulations that affect women’s economic opportunities compared with men.

The study said that businesses and governments must do more to address the specific dangers that female garment workers face while making clothes sold on high streets across the world. It urged for a review and revision of legal frameworks that protect their rights, as well as reiterated calls for the creation of a U.K. fashion watchdog that can blunt predatory commercial practices and stop abuses that resemble modern-day slavery.

“Retailers and brands should consider only sourcing products from suppliers with policies and mechanisms in place that protect workers’ rights and address gender harassment, abuse and gender discrimination,” Islam said. “They should also require independent audits, covering both manufacturers and subcontractors, to include this as a priority.”