Major clothing brands have pulled out of the Dhaka Apparel Summit scheduled for Saturday, citing concerns over labor unrest in Bangladesh days after Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the arbitrary detention of garment workers and labor rights activists.
Dutch mega brand C&A issued a news release stating that it, along with other labels including H&M and Inditex, would not participate in the second-ever summit hosted by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and featuring Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“Instead, we strongly encourage the Government of Bangladesh to take immediate steps to ensure the protection of the workers’ rights, with special attention to the legitimate representatives of the workers who have been arrested,” C&A said.
“We sincerely hope that BGMEA will use its influence to resolve these issues and we look forward to continuing our work with BGMEA in support of a strong and stable garment industry in Bangladesh.”
About 1,500 workers at garment factories lost their jobs and labor leaders were arrested after launching a strike over wages from Dec. 11 to 19 at Ashulia, the manufacturing hub near Dhaka of Bangladesh’s all-important garment industry. Ten remain in jail on charges of sabotage, extortion, looting and vandalism, according to officials.
H&M confirmed that it is joining the boycott.
“H&M believes that attending the Dhaka Apparel Summit would create confusion and send the wrong signals regarding our commitment to freedom of association and that the ongoing situation must be peacefully resolved,” spokesman Iñigo Sáenz Maestre said.
HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson last week called on major brands to pull out of the summit and push the government to take positive steps.
“Targeting labor activists and intimidating workers instead of addressing their wage grievances tarnishes Bangladesh’s reputation and makes a mockery of government and industry claims that they are committed to protecting worker’s rights,” Robertson said.
A BGMEA executive refuted Robertson’s statement.
“I do not agree with HRW. Its allegations are all fictitious and based on hearsay. I would rather ask the HRW representatives to visit garment factories. The rights of factory owners and workers have been ensured by law,” BGMEA president Siddikur Rahman told BenarNews. BGMEA represents about 4,500 factories in Bangladesh.
Layoffs led to protest
The protests began after 121 workers were laid off from a factory, but soon turned into a movement seeking wage hikes for workers. In mid-December thousands of workers rallied to demand monthly wages increase from 5,300 taka (U.S. $66) to 16,000 taka ($200).
At least 55 Ashulia factories were closed as workers rallied. When it ended, production resumed, but 1,500 workers were without jobs.
Babul Akhtar, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, said the situation was unprecedented.
“Police arrested workers under the Special Powers Act, brought sedition charges apart from theft, looting, extortion and vandalism charges,” Babul told BenarNews.
The 1974 act ensured “more speedy trial and effective punishment of certain grave offenses” including sabotage, counterfeiting and smuggling.
Md Jahangir was among those arrested.
“It was in the middle of the night. I heard footsteps of many at my door. They asked my wife to open the door. Once my wife refused, they started banging the door. I woke up in a hurry. I was taken to police custody and remained missing to my family for five days,” Jahangir told.
A police official blamed the protesters.
“Those who do not want Bangladesh to stand on her own are instigating these protests,” Ashulia Thana officer-in-charge Mohsin Qadir told BenarNews.
He estimated the number of people arrested to be about 50, pointing out that Ashulia Thania police alone arrested 16 labor leaders.
‘Can’t save a single penny’
Machine operator Jharna Begum said she needed a pay raise.
“We can’t save a single penny. I can’t keep my two kids with me. Things are costly here and for the betterment of the kids I have sent them to my village home,” she said. “It’s a five-hour journey from here, so I can’t see my kids very often.”
Worker Jorina Begum said she had cut back on her food budget, purchasing dry fish, lentils and low-quality rice. The last time she served meat to her family was on the first day of the month after getting paid.
“I bought a dozen of eggs and it’s only for my kid. The boy gets it on every alternative day, I can’t allow anybody else,” Jorina told BenarNews.