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ILRF Says Labor Abuses Still Rampant in Bangladesh

Reform efforts have been underway in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry this year, but those efforts could prove futile if workers can’t voice their ongoing concerns.

According to a new International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) report, fire, electrical and structural safety are undoubtedly vital, but so too is hearing from workers about conditions on the job.

“Renovations and repairs must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety,” the report noted.

Bangladesh has so far amended some of its labor laws, allowed for more trade union registrations, hired and trained more than 200 labor inspectors, and as of October, the government said it had conducted 1,475 factory assessments and found only three to be “dangerous” and 209 to be “nearly dangerous.”

What the industry needs now, the ILRF said, is a follow-up phase of reforms that promote respect for workers as equally important to fire exit safety.

“Without it workers’ lives and health will continue to be in jeopardy,” the report noted.

The ILRF interviewed more than 70 workers from October 2014 to January 2015 to discuss workplace safety from their purview and found that most felt intimidated and fearful about speaking up, so many simply don’t.

One worker interviewed, Aleya Akter, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF) who also works at Lufa Garments, was beaten three times when she tried to form a union, including once in a meeting room when police were present. She faced countless other adverse encounters before finally getting the union registered nearly 7 years later.

“This is a major challenge: to get factory management to have a proper mindset about their workers, to understand that their workers should not be ignored and that they should live a life with dignity,” Akter said. “If after all this suffering we could form trade unions in every factory, we could prevent more Rana Plazas and Tazreens from happening.”

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Other workers said production targets and workloads are unreasonably high, so much so that managers prevent restroom breaks, curb water consumption, keep them from leaving work at reasonable hours and hardly extend leave for things like family members’ medical emergencies.

“They tell us about wages so low they are effectively trapped in abusive conditions, and about sexual harassment and abuse for which the victims are blamed,” the report continued. “In a word, instead of a safe working environment, they describe to us, with some notable exceptions, a state of abject powerlessness.”

If workers can’t speak up, price and productivity pressures could keep factories circumventing basic safety measures and if the world’s attention is at the time turned elsewhere, the industry might be none the wiser.

The ILRF is calling on the Bangladesh government, factory owners, apparel brands and retailers and other influential stakeholders to foster environments where workers can freely voice their concerns about labor conditions and help develop solutions.

“Only when workers’ own voices are a valued part of reform initiatives will industry growth bring safety, security and justice to workers, and only then will the progress on safety be sustainable,” the report noted.