Big Backlash in Bangladesh: Workers Escalate Demands for Better Working Conditions


Violence has erupted in Bangladesh, following the world’s worst garment industry disaster last month, as thousands of workers gathered in the country’s capital on Monday demanding better pay conditions. Police charged batons and fired rubber bullets and tear gas as angry protesters demonstrated outside the capital’s main factory district, blocking the main highway in the Ashulia industrial area, home to the world’s largest manufacturing factories such as Walmart.

Up to 20,000 people took part in the protests, with more than 50 people injured by police intervention. Ashulia chief police Badrul Alam defended the action, arguing that workers had attacked police, throwing stones and striking police vehicles.

"They were demanding higher wages. We fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them after they became violent and occupied a road," he told the AFP.

The demonstration is part of a rising string of protests over the past month. Since the April tragedy, a million people have signed petitions calling on global corporations like Gap and Walmart to end unsafe labor practices in Bangladesh, with hundreds protesting at stores across the country.

Members from United Students Against Sweatshops and Jobs with Justice were arrested at demonstrations at the Gap shareholder meeting in San Francisco where they were calling upon the company to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh aimed at improving worker safety conditions.

The Gap and Walmart, two of the major producers in Bangladesh, have resisted signing any agreement that is legally enforceable to date. Instead, Walmart said last week that it will conduct its own investigations into its supplier factories. This is a questionable move that raises much concern particularly in light of yesterday’s Reuters report that a Bangladesh factory where Walmart inspectors spotted cracks in the wall this month, is still making Wrangler shirts for the world’s largest apparel maker, US-based VF Corp.

The incident highlights an increasing need for policy makers to step in and harden their stance on international manufacturing practices.  Moreover, there is a lack of government accountability and impetus to act to respond to tragedies despite their continual occurrence.

According to Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fashion, increasing wages and conditions for workers would not only improve labor conditions in developing countries like Bangladesh, but also allow the United States an opportunity to once again compete in the garment industry.

Over the last 20 years, the amount of clothing imports into the US has risen exponentially with the US now only making about two per cent of its clothing domestically, Cline states. Not only does this feed the exploitation of cheap labor in countries like Bangladesh, but it also impacts upon the US job market.

Without the political will to promote fair-priced labor conditions in the US and implement laws aimed at protecting workers from unfair buying practices, workers at both ends of the spectrum continue to suffer.

While media coverage of the April disaster undoubtedly placed Bangladesh and its contentious labor practices under scrutiny, the tragedy was not the first of its kind; over 1,800 workers have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh since 2005. Despite such figures, it is now considered the second largest clothing manufacturer in the world with 80% of its annual exports deriving from a $20 billion industry.

Furthermore, with a population of approximately 150 million people living in a radius the size of Iowa state, the country is one of the most densely populated on the globe. While this has contributed to many of its social and economic problems, Bangladesh continues to remain economically resilient.

Historically, the Bengal delta operated as a thriving, commercial trading route in the early 20th century, connecting India, China and Southeast Asia and expanding trade between the Middle East, East Africa and Europe. However, following Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan after the Liberation War in 1971, the country lost access to its much-needed capital and suffered from extreme economic loss and poverty.  

In an effort to rebuild, it began focusing on the ready-made garment sector by adopting export-orientated industrialization methods, denationalizing the public sector and shifting its socialist policies toward private sector participation and foreign investments.

In 1974, the Multi-Fiber Arrangement in the North American market began regulating the international garment trade industry, imposing quotas on exports from developing countries within Asia. Subsequently, foreign entrepreneurs went in search for countries that could become “quota-free” manufacturing locations.

Bangladesh, as a developing nation, benefited substantially from the Arrangement in that no restrictions on imports were imposed on those countries considered the poorest. This led to the emergence of the “export-oriented garment industry” in Bangladesh, which turned the country into one of the world’s leading export sectors.

Over the next 25 years, the garment industry in Bangladesh contributed to a major reduction in poverty and boosted employment by five percent a year from 1995-2005. Unfortunately, this economic success could not be reconciled with the increasingly poor labor conditions and low wages, which followed.  

In response to the media exposure of a number of worldwide sweatshop scandals within the garment industry involving companies such as Walmart and Nike, US President Bill Clinton established the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) in the mid ‘90s, joining forces with retailers and labor unions, with a view to eliminating sweatshops and improving labor conditions for workers worldwide.

The AIP also established the 1999 Fair Labor Association, which aimed to promote corporate culpability and facilitate inspections of unfair labor practices both domestically and internationally. However, as the garment supply chains moved further away from the United States to places such China and Asia, it became increasingly more difficult to monitor internal labor practices and conditions in factories abroad.

As a result, the 2000s were fraught with continuous workers rights violations, government intimidation and violence in Bangladesh. After a series of demonstrations and intense pressure from workers to improve work safeguards, the Bangladeshi government finally introduced laws allowing for the establishment of a workers association in 2006. However, such progression took a back seat when the government imposed a state of emergency in 2007 and banned union activities for the entire year.

In response, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) filed a petition in 2007 with US Trade Representative resulting in the removal of the state of emergency status in Bangladesh 2008. However, in 2009, workers rights violations continued prompting further review by the AFL-CIO.

Today, there are approximately 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh with 3.6 million garment workers, paid around $38 per month. While there has been an increase in worker elections supporting the formation of unions, dialogue between associations and employers remains sluggish.

Moreover, 80% of garment workers in the industry are women and are subject not only to inhumane work conditions, such as long work hours, unbearable working temperatures, lack of bathroom facilities and sexual harassment, but their voices are disregarded on the mere basis of their sex.

According to Human Rights Watch, the human rights situation in Bangladesh deteriorated significantly in 2012 with labor groups in the country such as the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity continuing to face criminal charges -- some as serious as the death penalty -- as well as numerous restrictions on funding for their activism.

Last week, the Bangladesh Cabinet agreed to allow the country’s garment workers to form unions without having to obtain consent from factory owners. In addition, a board has been set up to review the minimum wage for garment workers within three months.  

Whether or not the government will follow through on these promises remains uncertain, but in the interim global companies can at least react by complying with international recognized standards and fair-labor agreements such as signing the Accord.

Of cours, even a legally binding agreement signed by Western conglomerates has the potential to be ineffective in the face of homegrown corruption, particularly by local governments in Bangladesh which have continuously averted from rules and regulations.  

The question of the validity of any agreement also remains fallible, with enforcement still proving to be the greatest hurdle and anti-union companies like Walmart and the Gap still refusing to get on board.

Without the backbone of the major stakeholders, the immediate plight of the Bangladeshis will not change. With that in mind, the April 24 tragedy provides an opportunity for political reform. The future of Bangladesh lies in the power of international cooperation and the implementation of concrete political measures to end unfair labor practices and help the country emerge into the developed world.

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