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Bangladesh Labor Rights ‘Deteriorating,’ Campaigners Warn

As dozens of garment workers took to the streets of Gazipur Wednesday to protest layoffs without notice, a new report claims that labor rights in Bangladesh are “deteriorating” despite government promises to commit to an International Labour Organization (ILO) roadmap for reform.

The South Asian nation has maintained a rating of 5—a.k.a. no guarantee of human rights—for the past eight years, making it one of the 10 worst countries in the world for working people in 2021, according to the ​​International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) latest Global Rights Index.

Workers in Bangladesh face regressive laws, opposition to union formation and brutal crackdowns on strikes involving disproportionate force, batons and tear gas, said the organization, which represents labor unions worldwide. Those who attempt to form or join trade unions are “regularly met with employer threats, physical violence and mass dismissals,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary at the ITUC. “Even where workers succeed in forming a union, registration can be arbitrarily denied by the authorities.”

One case in point? Of the 1,100 union registration applications delivered to the department of labor between 2010 and 2021, an “extraordinarily high” 46 percent of them were rejected, “denying workers a voice and the right to form and join a union,” Burrow said. Even as the Bangladesh authorities prepare to update the ILO Governing Body on the progress of reform, she added, union busting, wage discrimination and unsafe working conditions continue to plague three of the nation’s largest employment sectors: ready-made garments, shipbreaking and leather tanning.

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The ITUC is urging the government of Bangladesh to immediately establish a “transparent and effective” monitoring mechanism for implementing the ILO roadmap and “meaningfully” consulting with tripartite constituents on all action points, including freedom of association, collective bargaining rights, labor inspection and enforcement, trade union registration and dispute resolution.

Not only do 35,000 Bangladeshis die and eight million are injured at work every year, the organization said, but sexual violence, “barely monitored” workplaces and poverty wages remain rife. At the same time, workers who seek reparations face a three-year logjam at the courts.

“Since the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, the government of Bangladesh has failed to implement commitments it has made to respect international labor standards and improve the working and living conditions of workers in Bangladesh,” Burrow said. “The government must take this seriously and must fully, completely and in a timely manner implement the ILO roadmap and the EU national action plan. Workers want a better Bangladesh, fair pay, to be safe at work and a voice.”

In Gazipur, a city north of the capital of Dhaka, more than 85 workers protested outside Incredible Fashion Limited after finding out their sewing sections had shuttered from a notice posted on the factory gate. Demonstrators threw bricks at the police, who in turn fired 19 tear-gas shells at them, the Dhaka Tribune reported.

Aligning with the UN Guiding Principles

The ITUC’s statement comes on the heels of a study by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a think tank based in Dhaka, that concluded that Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry remains “below the elementary level” of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), a set of guidelines for governments and companies to mitigate and remedy human-rights abuses in business operations.

While Bangladesh has made strides in boosting workplace safety over the past decade, the organization said, factories still need to improve on labor issues such as collective bargaining, gender equity, sexual harassment, living wages and appropriate mechanisms for layoffs. Doing so is important with Bangladesh tipped to graduate from least-developed country status in 2026, which will be a recognition of its progress, even if it means the loss of trade privileges such as duty-free status on exports, it said. Hewing to the UNGPs will be “highly beneficial for the RMG enterprises to better structure social compliances in adherence to international standards,” CPD added.

CPD surveyed more than 600 small, medium and large enterprises, along with more than 600 workers across 200 factories in the manufacturing hubs of Dhaka, Chattogram, Gazipur and Narayanganj. Most facilities (82 percent), it found, have an official position on key human-rights issues, which they publicly disclose in the form of posters, brochures, annual reports and online publications. But there was also a “wide variation” in the public reporting of different issues, CPD discovered. The most common were child labor, workplace safety, workplace harassment and living wage, while the least addressed were layoffs, retrenchments and collective bargaining.

Of the enterprises CPD examined, 62 percent reported bearing at least one certificate or standard, whether related to the International Organization for Standardization, Oeko-Tex, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, yet “workers’ rights are less focused.” Factories that rely on multiple brands place greater emphasis on complying with environmental and pollution-related issues than with labor-related ones, it added.

But for the most part, factories believe that enhancing human-rights issues can promote worker efficiency and therefore benefit their bottom lines. While 79 percent of respondents said improving labor issues will raise operational costs, 94 percent of respondents said they believed that their purchase orders will also increase. Fewer than one-quarter of factories polled said improving human rights would lower profits.

In terms of putting human rights into practice, 80 percent of factories said they have either a person or department to “embed human rights” within their day-to-day activities. More than half (60 percent) of those polled said they have conversations or regular meetings with different stakeholders to improve human rights in their workplaces. Another 82 percent said they have taken action against human-rights violations such as workplace harassment or problems with overtime, with a verbal warning as the main method employed.

At the same time, only 69 percent of factories reported having a channel or mechanism for workers to raise complaints and concerns of any human-rights abuses. Less than two-thirds (64 percent) said they maintained records of their progress on human rights in their factories and 45 percent said they updated their records every year. Just over one-third of workers (34 percent) said their factories had anti-harassment committees. Even fewer (12.7 percent) have partaken of their companies’ grievance systems. When it came to layoffs, a scant 6.3 percent of workers said their factories provided three months’ notice, and one-third received no notice at all.

“The concept of UNGPs is not fully clear to the garment manufacturers, although they understand human and labor rights issues,” CDP said. “Overall, the practice of UNGPs in the RMG sector is still at the early stage [and] the process of institutionalization has yet to be started.” It suggested creating a binding treaty that could facilitate the uptake and enforcement of UNGPs, along with workshops and training for management staff to “help factories to set goals and achieve those.”

Safeguarding women’s livelihoods

Meanwhile, H&M Foundation is looking to future-proof factories for female garment workers.

H&M’s philanthropic arm is teaming up with the Asia Foundation and BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) to launch the Stitch for RMG Global Innovation Challenge, which seeks to uncover tech-based innovations that can benefit Bangladesh’s female garment workers, who make up 58 percent of the workforce.

The virtual contest will award six winning teams with incubation support and up to $30,000 to pilot innovations with an “explicit gender lens” within the themes of automation and efficiency, sustainability and circular fashion, product design and raw materials, skills development and women-empowering environments. Open for applications until Nov. 25, the challenge is looking for innovations in the prototype, pre-commercial and post-commercial stages.

The contest, the second part of a broader Stitch for RMG pilot project by H&M Foundation and BRAC, builds on insights and knowledge gleaned from the initiative’s virtual June conference. Its overarching goal, the organizations said, is to create an environment that “safeguards and advances women’s economic empowerment” in Bangladesh’s factories.

Though the increase in automation and digital technology in the textile industry provides myriad new opportunities, it also risks millions of jobs for women who have routinized jobs at high risk of being made obsolete, they added. There is therefore an “urgent need” to create a skilled female workforce to save existing jobs, create new ones and bolster gender equity in the ready-made garment sector.

“There is a real need for new approaches to support women in the future garment industry,” Charlotte Brunnström, strategy lead at H&M Foundation, said in a statement. “We have high hopes that the Stitch for RMG Global Innovation Challenge will result in innovations that have the potential to improve the industry competitiveness and livelihood of the women garment workers. Our long-term goal is to prepare and equip the women to work successfully alongside AI and automation, and, by [doing] this, safeguard their livelihoods.”