Garment Factory Workers In Bangladesh Still Face Challenges To Unionization Three Years After The Rana Plaza Collapse

Three years ago, on the 24th of April 2013, over a thousand garment workers in a Bangladesh died after the Rana Plaza building collapsed. The horrifying event showed the failures of global brands to regulate and audit their supplier factories. In many ways it proved to be a turning point in the garment industry, as it enabled agreements, such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The legally binding agreement between global workers unions and hundreds of multinational brands to examine and repair 1,600 garment factories was ground breaking. The Bangladesh government also committed to a Sustainability Compact in order to improve labour rights and factory safety with the European Union. The EU, US and Canada, supporters of the reform are also involved in monitoring the implementation and should hence put pressure on Bangladesh to revise its labour laws and to show progress under the Sustainability Compact.

While some development has been made, garment workers in Bangladesh still experience challenges to unionization, as factories threaten their interference in the supply chain. The Human Rights Watch reported yesterday that the Bangladesh government still actively prevent unionization through legal and practical terms. The restrictions of trade union involvement are a violation of international law. Bangladesh has ratified the Conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, under the International Labour Organization (ILO). The conventions specify which international standards, which governments are expected to follow in regards for workers union formation. The government is also subject to the freedom of association under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, something that the Bangladesh Labour Act and general labour rules fails to meet. Only 10 percent of the 4,500 factories have registered unions, as the government constantly turn applications down. According to the labour laws 30 percent in a factory need to agree to form a union, it also requires a disproportionate amount of registration procedures. Once a union is created, the government has the mandate to close the registration of a union based on vague administrative powers. The European Commission’s Technical Status Reports of April 2015 on the Sustainability Compact also identified other barriers facing garment workers to effective unionizing. The report identified strict limits to the right to strike and difficulties for unions to elect their representatives. While the applications for union registration have drastically increased since the tragedy in 2013, the labour authorities in 2015 only approved 61 union registrations while declining 148. One of the reasons for this is the new Labour Rules, which was initiated in 2015 in Bangladesh, making the process of registration more excessive. The Labour Rules makes it easier for the authorities to disqualify certain workers from joining, and workers who seek to become union leaders are faced with harsh scrutiny. The already vulnerable garment workers not only have to work against the government, but also the factory officials and their associates. There have been many cases of physical assaults, intimidation, and threats towards the unions and their members by the factories themselves; something that the authorities have been incompetent to react towards. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, argued that the “thwarting independent garment worker unions is bad for business, workers, and Bangladesh’s international reputation”. According to Robertson they need to show that they’re willing to register the unions promptly and to condemn leaders in factories that treat union members unjust.

So how can we work towards providing garment workers with fair wages, manageable working hours and safe conditions? The changes to the garment factory need to be systematic, enforceable, and cover all garment supplying nations. If one factory suddenly increased their wages, it would run out of business due to the large competition. The real change can only be managed through strong trade unions and global brands in order to increase the safety and welfare of workers across the whole industry. The crucial point is for multinational companies to be willing to reform their purchasing practices so that factories are able to pay higher wages across the entire industry. No single factory should be able to negotiate on prices based on lower wages. However, this requires enforceable and strict monitoring from all parts of the chain, and those undermining the system needs to be held accountable. In regards to the Bangladesh government, pressure from the initiators of the Sustainability Compact needs not only to work on safety conditions for workers, but also their rights to register and act through unions.

Sally Wennergren