Seven years after a factory collapse killed more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh, industrial buildings there are safer but employees are sexually abused and others face increased intimidation while trying to form unions, a U.S. Senate report said Thursday.
Women who make up most of the workforce in the ready-made garment (RMG) industry – the South Asian nation’s most dynamic sector – suffer from abuse in the workplace despite measures taken to improve worker safety in the wake of Bangladesh’s deadliest industrial disaster to date, according to the report.
“Women are the backbone of the RMG sector,” Sen. Robert Menendez said, adding that makes them the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy.
“All too often women suffer the most egregious abuses,” he said in Washington, while releasing the report titled “Seven Years after Rana Plaza, Significant Challenges Remain.”
The report was compiled by staffers working for Menendez, a Democrat who sits on the Committee on Foreign Relations in the Senate, which is controlled by the Republican Party.
According to the report, a 2019 survey by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity found many examples of gender-based violence in RMG factories. These ranged from a line chief touching a worker’s breast while showing her how to operate a machine, to another supervisor forcing a worker to lie under a table in his office while he raped her.
Sexual harassment allegations are regularly received by the hotline of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the report said. The Accord is a European Union-based watchdog organization, which represents leading fashion brand names including H&M, Marks & Spencer and United Colors of Benetton.
Established after the Raza Plaza collapse in April 2013 and the Tazreen Fashions garment factory fire that killed 112 in November 2012, the Accord will expire before May 31 under an agreement with the Bangladesh government.
Eighty-five percent of safety hazards identified during initial inspections across all factories had been fixed, the Accord reported, adding that 150 factories had reached full compliance and 857 factories had completed more than 90 percent of remediation requirements.
As of late February, 175 factories had been declared ineligible for business with Accord-member buyers over their failure to implement workplace safety measures, according to the report issued by Menendez.
Once Accord expires, Bangladesh’s RMG Sustainability Council will be responsible for monitoring the more than 2,000 ready-made garment factories that employ about 4 million people.
When contacted in Dhaka on Thursday, the Bangladesh labor secretary said he had not seen the U.S. report but claimed that working conditions in his country had improved.
“What I can tell you is that we have achieved huge progress in terms of worker safety and welfare. Two days ago, I met with the U.S. ambassador and a U.S. team who expressed their satisfaction with the measures taken to improve labor standards,” Labor Secretary K.M. Ali Azam told BenarNews.
Hostile climate toward unions
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions tragedies, hundreds of unions were registered but efforts to carry on with labor rights reforms have since deteriorated. Organizers face bureaucratic obstacles and intimidation from factory owners who have not been held accountable for unfair practices as defined by the 2006 Bangladesh Labor Act, the report said.
“The violence and repression during the December 2018 and January 2019 worker protests over minimum wage illustrates this downward trajectory,” the report said.
In January 2019, police used tear gas, water cannons, batons and rubber bullets against protesters, it said.
The report quoted an unnamed factory worker who spoke to Human Rights Watch about what happened on Jan. 8, 2019, as he was returning from lunch with his colleague, Sumon Mia, when they got caught in the protest.
“Police started shooting and the workers started running away, so Sumon and I started running and suddenly Sumon was shot in his chest and he fell down. I fled. Later I found Sumon’s body lying in the road. The police didn’t even take his body,” the worker said.
Two years earlier, in December 2016, the government and factory owners launched a crackdown following “peaceful protests” by thousands of workers seeking higher wages, the report noted.
“At least 1,500 workers were dismissed, 38 union leaders were arrested on baseless criminal charges, and trade union offices were closed or came under intense pressure from government authorities,” the report said.
Only after Western brands boycotted a meeting with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the industry’s most powerful trade group, did the government start releasing those who had been arrested, the report said.
Ali Azam, the labor secretary, said the government had taken positive steps to reduce conditions needed to form a union, noting that the labor law required 20 percent consent from workers, down from 30 percent previously.
“The U.S. government demanded we reduce the ratio to 10 percent. We are working on it,” Ali Azam said.
“Our progress has been tremendous,” he said. “Seven out of 10 green RMG factories throughout the world are in Bangladesh.
“But we are not complacent. We will do more in terms of improving labor rights and standards,” he said.
‘Not the right picture’
Meanwhile, a BGMEA official questioned the report’s allegations about harassing and terminating workers.
“That is not the right picture,” Faisal Samad, a senior BGMEA vice president, told BenarNews.
“After the Rana Plaza tragedy, we invested huge amounts money to improve workplace safety and our factories best in the world. What I can tell you is that we have made progress on all issues,” said Samad, managing director of Surma Garments Ltd.
Samad called for a committee made up of U.S. embassy, government and BGMEA officials to study the report’s findings to determine if they are correct.
In Washington, Mahbub Saleh, deputy chief of the Bangladesh mission, attended Menendez’s presentation on Thursday at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, one of the most influential unions in the United States.
Saleh also questioned the report’s findings on unions.
“You will be happy to know, Sen. Menendez, that the number of trade unions in the garment industry stands at 8,000-plus today in Bangladesh. The rejection rate for union applications was 73 percent in 2015, it has come down to 37 percent today,” he said. “So it’s a tireless effort.”
Despite this, Saleh had praise for the report.
“I don’t see any disagreements – there may be some differences, but that’s how a dialogue goes,” he said.
Menendez responded by saying that he and the committee’s staff were committed to engaging with the Bangladesh government on worker safety.
“This is not about punishment, this is about progress,” he said.
The report concluded by saying that when the RMG Sustainability Council takes over as the industry’s watchdog, the onus will be on the Bangladesh government to ensure safe buildings and safe workers.
“Only then will ‘Made in Bangladesh’ become a true label of pride for all the people of Bangladesh,” the report said.
Mahbub Leelen in Washington and Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.