2 years after Rana Plaza, workers denied rights: HRW

New Age Online

Collapsed Rana Plaza. New Age file photo

Collapsed Rana Plaza. New Age file photo

Garment workers in Bangladesh face poor working conditions and anti-union tactics by employers including assaults on union organizers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Wednesday.
The rights body said efforts are underway to make Bangladesh factories safer, but the government and Western retailers can and should do more to enforce international labor standards to protect workers’ rights, including their right to form unions and advocate for better conditions.
The HRW observation came on the second anniversary since more than 1,100 workers died in the catastrophic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on April 24, 2013.
‘If Bangladesh wants to avoid another Rana Plaza disaster, it needs to effectively enforce its labor law and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal,’ said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch.
He said: ‘If Bangladesh does not hold factory managers accountable who attack workers and deny the right to form unions, the government will perpetuate practices that have cost the lives of thousands of workers.’
The 78-page report, ‘“Whoever Raises Their Head, Suffers the Most’: Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories,” is based on interviews with more than 160 workers from 44 factories, most of them making garments for retail companies in North America, Europe, and Australia. Workers report violations including physical assault, verbal abuse – sometimes of a sexual nature – forced overtime, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full. Despite recent labor law reforms, many workers who try to form unions to address such abuses face threats, intimidation, dismissal, and sometimes physical assault at the hands of factory management or hired third parties.
Human Rights Watch called on the Bangladesh government, factory owners, and Western retailers to ensure respect for workers’ rights and end the unlawful targeting of labor leaders by factory owners and supervisors.
While changes to some labor laws since Rana Plaza, including provisions easing the union registration process, have facilitated registration of new unions, still fewer than 10 percent of garment factories in Bangladesh have unions. Union leaders told Human Rights Watch that they continue to be targeted by factory management, risking abuse by both managers and supervisors, or thugs acting at their behest. In some factories, workers leading efforts to form unions have been dismissed for their organizing activities. Factory owners and management reject these allegations. A Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) official told Human Rights Watch: ‘We have a bitter experience about unions. They believe they don’t need to work and they will get paid.’
‘Clearly, it is not enough to focus on factory safety alone. Recent tragedies at Bangladeshi factories demonstrate that dangerous working conditions are linked to the failure to respect workers’ rights, including their right to form unions which can help them to collectively bargain for improved safety,’ Robertson said.
The primary responsibility for protecting the rights of workers rests with the Bangladesh government. Since the Rana Plaza disaster, the government has taken steps to strengthen the Directorate of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, which is responsible for monitoring work place safety and compliance, and has hired more inspectors. But Human Rights Watch found that much more remains to be done to strengthen the ability of the Ministry of Labour and Employment to effectively investigate and prosecute unfair labor practices, including anti-union discrimination, intimidation, and harassment cases, and ensure inspectors strictly follow the law.
The readymade garment industry accounts for almost 80 percent of the country’s export earnings and contributes to more than10 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), employing more than four million workers, a majority of them women. The industry, which includes more than 4,500 factories of various sizes, has a crucial role in alleviating poverty in Bangladesh.

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