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One Year On, Protesting Bangladesh Garment Workers Still Face Retaliatory Charges

One year after 10,000 garment workers poured into the streets of Bangladesh to protest low wages, hundreds are still fighting “trumped-up and retaliatory charges,” including the threat of prison time, labor-rights groups say.

A week of violent demonstrations last January led the Bangladesh government to raise wages across several pay grades, yet thousands of workers have been unable to return to work because of “politically motivated dismissals, blacklisting and criminal charges,” according to the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the garment industry’s largest alliance of labor unions and non-governmental organizations.

Thousands of workers lost their jobs without severance in “acts of retaliation” both during and after the strikes, which were prompted by the new minimum wage of of 8,000 taka ($94)—only half what unions demanded and far below what would constitute a living wage.

“While this meant a 2,700 taka increase for those earning the minimum wage, most workers in higher pay grades received a more limited raise,” the campaign noted. “When workers saw what the wage hike actually amounted to in their pay checks, tens of thousands of them took to the streets.”

To disperse crowds, police used water cannons, tear gas, batons, rubber bullets and other actions that ultimately killed one worker and wounded more than 50.

But the punitive action didn’t stop there, the campaign said. Repression by factory owners, it said, included erecting billboards with the names and photographs of terminated workers at factory gates and deploying worker biometric data systems to track and share names and profiles.

“Thousands of workers were affected by such blacklisting measures,” the CCC said.

Both the Clean Clothes Campaign and the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) say they know of at least 33 cases, cumulatively aimed at thousands of garment workers, filed under Bangladesh’s penal code. Nearly all cases, they said, were filed by factories producing for major international brands, including C&A, H&M, Next, Primark, Mango, Marks & Spencer and Inditex, which owns Zara.

“Since the beginning of 2019, national and international labor organizations, including CCC and ILRF, have reached out to apparel brands sourcing from factories complicit in the repression against garment workers, urging them to require their suppliers to immediately withdraw all baseless criminal complaints against workers, reinstate the terminated or forcibly dismissed workers with full back pay and to put an end to the blacklisting,” the campaign said.

Despite their advocacy, response has been mixed. Several brands, including H&M, Primark and Next, both groups noted, have engaged with their suppliers to “address the repression.” According to information available to labor groups, however, each of the brands “still has at least one trumped-up case” that cannot be confirmed as dismissed in their Bangladesh supply chains.

CCC and ILRF say they have received “definitive confirmation” that the Bangladesh courts have dropped five criminal cases, which together charged at least 949 workers, after the factories that filed the cases moved for dismissal. Several others have court decisions that are still pending or as yet unconfirmed.

Apparel retailers, the Bangladesh government and factory owners and their representative associations all share responsibility to “solve this crisis and take further action to provide justice to the affected workers,” the campaign said.

“These same actors are responsible for ensuring that garment workers are finally paid a living wage: apparel companies by reversing the trend towards ever lower sourcing costs through paying sufficient prices to allow for higher wages, the government by raising the minimum wage level and factory owners by paying workers a living wage,” it added.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country’s trade union for factory owners, has repudiated the Clean Clothes Campaign’s allegations as “ill-directed, perception based propaganda” without accurate data.

“The CCC has no office in Bangladesh and therefore, it is very much possible that the information they collect from secondary sources [is] not fact based,” it wrote in a statement. “The BGMEA urges CCC to dedicate sufficient time to verify and cross-check its data. How the CCC chooses to conduct its campaign is its own business, but the BGMEA would urge that they allow us to present the reality that actually exists in Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment exporter after China, employs roughly 3.5 million workers in 4,800 factories. The South Asian country’s $30 billion clothing sector accounts for 80 percent of the its export earnings and 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

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