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Bangladesh Garment Worker Protests Kill 1, Injure 35

Across the globe, garment workers who have lost jobs, missed out on wages or fear for their safety because of the Covid-19 pandemic have been taking to the streets to demand reparations, often with tragic results.

One worker was killed and 35 injured in Bangladesh on Sunday after hundreds of protestors demanding the payment of arrears clashed with industrial police on the Dhaka-Tangail Highway at Ashulia.

Police used teargas shells, rubber bullets, batons and water cannons to disperse the erstwhile employees of Lenny Fashions, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Must Garment that provided jobs for 5,000 workers in the Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ) before shuttering in February due to pandemic-induced financial pressures.

Jesmin Begum, 32, a junior sewing operator, slammed her head into an iron pole as she was fleeing, authorities told local media. She was taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where she died from her injuries.

Protesting workers said Lenny Fashions’ management announced the closure of the factory without paying any of January’s dues.

DEPZ general manager Abdus Salam told New Age Bangladesh that factory authorities had paid out 35 crore Bangladeshi taka ($4.1 million) in arrears so far, with another 59 crore ($6.9 million) still outstanding. “The factory owner and the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority are trying together to sell the factory to pay the workers but it will take time,” he said.

Writing on Facebook, the Garment Workers Trade Union Center said it “strongly protests the murder of this worker” and called on “all the workers of the country to build a movement against the killing [of] laborers one after another.”

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Export data shows that Lenny Fashions supplied clothing to brands and retailers such as Ann Taylor, Gap, Talbots and Macy’s. Gap said it stopped working with the factory in 2018. The other companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Last Wednesday, Sri Lankan police arrested 10 people, including the provincial council’s deputy chairman for Puthukkudiyiruppu, Mullaitivu, following protests against the reopening of a garment factory amid another crushing wave of infection.

Despite mounting cases, President Gotabhaya Rajapakse has called for the continued operation of development plants and factories to prevent economic collapse. He has also instituted a strike ban for “essential services” such as manufacturing, threatening workers who do not comply with jail, fines and property seizures.

Member of Parliament Vino Noharathalingam and the garment factory administration have sent letters to Rajapakse urging him not to reopen the garment factory until all workers have been vaccinated and better provisions are in place to keep the contagion in check, to no avail, the Tamil Guardian reported.

Late last month, two people died and many others were injured after Lesotho security forces fired into a crowd of protesting garment workers in the capital of Maseru.

The deaths of Pitso Mothala and Motselisi Ramasa followed weeks of escalating state-sponsored violence against the southern African nation’s 40,000-plus apparel workers, who have been demanding a 20 percent pay rise after the government missed two scheduled incremental minimum-wage increases—for 2020/2021 and 2021/2022—that were scheduled to be enforced on April 1 but have since been delayed indefinitely.

The Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), an affiliate of IndustriALL Global Union, is currently negotiating an end to the national strike, which began May 10, with the Ministry of Labor and Employment. While government ministries have been resistant to overtures so far, trade unions say, this has proved untenable.

“Instead of resolving the dispute by announcing new wages, the government is resorting to the use of excessive force,” Mamakalo Mohapi, president of IDUL and a garment worker at Precious Garments in Maseru, said at the time. “Two workers have died: one was hit by a truck while the other was shot by the army. Several workers have also been injured and hospitalized.”

All of this comes as a recent International Labour Organization Call to Action update described bottlenecks that have prevented funds from European Union governments from reaching unemployed and destitute garment workers. In Bangladesh, where 4.1 million workers are employed in the apparel sector, just $640,476 has been provided to 6,031 beneficiaries, each of whom received three payments of roughly $36, as of mid-April. In Indonesia, just seven factories covering 9,000 workers have received a total of $730,000 under a German “income protection” scheme. In Cambodia, the disbursement of funds is being “delayed” by the pandemic. Haiti, Myanmar and Pakistan have so far received nothing.

Brands and retailers typically point to their involvement in the Call to Action, meant to secure financing for the “income protection and business continuity” in the garment sectors of several countries, as their way of helping workers through the current health and economic crisis.

But labor advocates say this is mostly a fig leaf that masks efforts that are nebulous at best.

“This new update shows that brands are hiding behind something that is not delivering what the brands were suggesting and that this program is not absolving any brand of their responsibility to address the immediate needs of the workers in their supply chains,” Christie Miedema, campaign and outreach coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of nonprofits and unions, told Sourcing Journal. “It is not meeting brands’ responsibilities under the pandemic, and it remains unclear how much or whether brands themselves have contributed.”

Labor groups have been urging fashion businesses to take responsibility by publicly committing to a “wage assurance” fund that guarantees that all workers making and handling clothes in their supply chains receive the full wages they are owed in accordance with labor laws and international standards.

“It is disappointing to see that brands instead of committing to such an agreement are hiding behind a program that is providing only limited payments to workers and largely runs on public money, rather than on funds by the brands who carry responsibility for their supply chains,” Miedema added.