Union Busting

Many Bangladeshi garment workers involved in setting up trade unions — a “fundamental right” protected by the Bangladesh constitution[61]— face violence, intimidation, threats, and loss of employment.

I was terrified…. Whoever raises their head suffers the most.

—A former Bangladesh union member. [60]

While in one sense the climate for union formation has improved in Bangladesh since Rana Plaza—in part due to new legislation in mid-2013 easing requirements for union registration—national trade union federations report that abuses of workers pressing for or leading unions has actually increased as employers push back against new unionization drives. Our interviews provide substantial evidence of such abuse. Perpetrators of even egregious physical abuse are rarely prosecuted, although in several cases pressure from buyers or the BGMEA has led to mediated settlements of the underlying labor disputes.

Under intense international pressure to reform the industry following the Rana Plaza disaster, the government amended the labor law in July 2013, making it easier for unions to be organized. As a result, the labor department has registered more unions than ever: 85 new unions in 2013, 174 in 2014, and 21 in the first three months of 2015, bringing the total number of factory-level unions in Bangladesh from 136 in 2012 to 416 on March 30, 2015.[62] By contrast, in 2011 and 2012, the labor department registered only two unions.[63] Clearly, this is progress, but there are more than 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh and even after the new registrations unions are present in less than 10 percent of them.

Section 195 of the Bangladesh Labor Act, 2006 (amended 2013) outlaws numerous “unfair labor practices.” For example, no employer shall, “dismiss, discharge, remove from employment, or threaten to dismiss, discharge, or remove from employment a worker, or injure or threaten to injure him in respect of his employment by reason that the worker is or proposes to become, or seeks to persuade any other person to become, a member or officer of a trade union.”[64]

As detailed below, however, factory managers continue to use threats, violent attacks, and involuntary dismissals in efforts to stop unions from being registered. Even after unions are formed, union leaders still risk being fired. As a result, some unions exist only in name, with members too afraid to raise their voices and the union all but impotent as a channel to air and address worker concerns.

Another obstacle to unionization in Bangladesh, not covered in our interviews but addressed at the end of this chapter is that Bangladeshi law entirely denies workers in Export Processing Zones (EPZ) the right to form unions. The latter is a clear violation of workers’ right to freedom of association, another barrier that Bangladesh needs to tear down.

Physical Assault

Some workers involved in setting up trade unions have faced extreme violence by managers or by local criminals, known locally as “mastans,” who at times openly admit to acting on behalf of factory managers. In one case a worker was beaten by a man he described as being an influential political person connected to the factory owner. In another case a pregnant worker was beaten by a man wielding a curtain pole. In yet another case a female worker was hospitalized after being attacked by men with cutting shears.

Munir Moniruzzaman Sikder, a union organizer with the National Garment Worker’s Federation (NGWF), said that mastans beat him in May 2014 after managers discovered he was helping workers form a union at the Pioneer Knitwear factory.[65]

They were trying to force me to tell the names of all the other persons in the union and in other factories, and also how many workers were organizers and members of the federation. Those thugs said that factory owners have a lot of money. They said they were ordered to beat me so badly that I would be covered with soil [euphemism for dead and buried]. They hit me with field hockey sticks, fractured my right leg, and beat me on the arms, shoulders, and back. Really my entire body was covered with injuries. One thug yelled at me that if he heard me speak the name of the NGWF in the future, he would cut out my tongue.[66]

Four activists of the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity (BFWS) were attacked as they helped workers at the Korean-owned Chunji Knit Ltd. factory sign union registration forms in February 2014. They told Human Rights Watch that the violence only stopped when the attackers thought they had killed one of them. Mohammed Selim was beaten so badly that he spent 10 days in hospital and suffered injuries to his kidney and back.[67] The activists said they did not recognize their attackers, but later workers said that both factory managers and local gangsters had been involved. Chunji Knit officials denied that factory employees were involved, blaming local people who did not want the factory operations disturbed by a union because the factory provides jobs.[68] The BFWS filed a case against Chunji, accusing its staff of assault. The next day, Chunji in turn filed a case against the four activists, accusing them of vandalizing the factory and stealing air-conditioners and computers.[69]

In an email response to queries from Human Rights Watch, the Director for Global Compliance at Sears Holdings Management Corporation said that while it was “unable to confirm the involvement of any factory management from Chunji Knit in the alleged attack, we reinforced our policy regarding freedom of association.”[70] While C&A used to source from Chunji Knit, in a response to queries from Human Rights Watch, Philip Chamberlain, Head of External Stakeholder Engagement, C&A Europe explained that although “the fact of being no longer a customer of the factory, gave us no capacity to speak directly with the management,” they have raised concerns with BGMEA representatives that “that potential cases such as the one in Chunji Knit might be jeopardizing the reputation of Bangladeshi suppliers.”[71]

The allegations are indeed shocking.

One of the labor activists, Hasina Akhter Hashi, described her experience:

The workers contacted the federation and said that they wanted to form a union. So the federation sent the four of us to go the workers’ houses in Dhaka city. The workers took us into their houses to fill out the forms, and quite quickly we signed about 300. But then some factory managers and local goons came and they attacked me and Rita in front of the house. They kicked, punched, and pushed us to the ground, they snatched away our mobile phones, they took all the completed forms, and our money…. I thought we were going to die. They were threatening that they would kill us. They had cloth cutting knives and scissors and they were yelling at us saying, ‘We are going to use these knives on your faces if you don’t listen to what we are saying.’ When our two male colleagues arrived to help, they attacked them. [72]

Most garment workers are women and are not spared physical attacks to prevent them forming labor unions. Organizers of a new union registered at a factory in Gazipur in January 2014, say they were assaulted, in some cases brutally, in the ensuing weeks and months; they said scores of union members were fired.

The union’s treasurer said management staff beat her while she was pregnant, and forced her to work at night. Eventually she was fired on May 18, without receiving all the wages she was owed.

I was beaten with metal curtain rods in February when I was pregnant. I was called to the chairman’s room, and then taken to the 3rd floor management room which is used by the management and directors and there I was beaten by the local goons. It was not just me that was beaten, there were other women who were called at other times, and they were beaten the same way as well. They also wanted to force me to sign on a blank piece of paper, and when I refused, that was when they started beating me. They were threatening me saying ‘You need to stop doing the union activities in the factory, why did you try and form the union. You need to sign this paper.’[73]

The union’s general secretary also described being beaten by local gangsters inside the factory. He said he was beaten so badly it left him with chest injuries that make it hard for him to breathe. He complained to the police, naming his attackers, but they did nothing.

When I was working, the mastans came into the factory, and then pulled me up to the conference room on the second floor of the factory and beat me. I know who these goons are. They kicked and punched me and I fell to the ground, all the time they were saying that I had to leave the factory. They told me that if I didn’t stop the union activity, they would kill me.[74]

Some workers are beaten and then fired. For instance, two former workers from a large factory in Ashulia claimed that they lost their jobs after trying to organize a union. One of them also said he was attacked in September 2013:

One day the managers found the business card of an official of the union federation. It had fallen out of my pocket. They said that I was being fired for visiting the federation. The assistant production manager kicked me in the groin and slapped me several times, warning me that he would hand me over to the police. The next day my supervisor told me that I had to resign, so I did.[75]

Human Rights Watch also spoke with several workers at two factories owned by the same man who tried to prevent workers from forming unions in both locations. After the unions were formed and registered in June 2013, the harassment of those who organized them intensified. At the first factory, a worker told Human Rights Watch that managers initially tried to prevent him from pursuing union activities by increasing his workload to the point where he had no time to speak with colleagues. After the union was registered in June 2013, he was beaten up: “Some local mastans beat me up and told me not to encourage other workers to join the union. Two managers and 10 outsiders were involved. They beat me up in front of the factory and told me to resign from the union or I would be killed.”[76]

Another union leader at the same factory said that on November 14, 2013, he received a threatening phone call from an unknown number warning him not to go to work. “A man told me on the phone, ‘If we see you there we will shoot you and make sure you die.’” The next day, the leader was attacked when he went to work, slashed with blades, and had to be hospitalized.[77]

Just as I left my house and reached the street corner, I saw some men standing there. They followed me closely as I went to the factory. Then one grabbed my neck and slapped me. He said, ‘Last night I told you not to come to the factory.’ They searched my pockets and stole my money. Then they began to beat me. Then they took blades out of their pockets and started to slash me. I called for help, and the men ran away. I have filed a case with the police and the union is now demanding that the factory sack the general manager and the production manager.[78]

At another factory owned by the same owner, a union organizer said that the management fired 50 workers in 2012 to prevent them from forming a union. Although the union was ultimately registered a year later, its leaders are still being harassed.

After registration, things are now worse. If anyone protests anything the manager will come and hit that individual in front of everyone. The management told us that they will not allow the union to operate.[79]

Union leaders at other factories also said they were attacked and threatened by owners. A founding member of a union at Sadia Garments said she resigned due to serious threats against her:[80]

When we took the registration form to the owner he threw it in the dustbin. He said that he would spend lots of money to stop the union from being formed. He said he would bribe the police and hire thugs. So we felt really scared. In total there were 14 organizers. Two of them were beaten. One woman was attacked with cutting shears. Then some men came to my house. This was about 15-20 days after we submitted the forms. There was one mastan as well as the owner’s brother and some other staff. The mastan said, ‘If you do not leave your job we will do something serious to you, so take your money, take two months’ pay, and go away.’ I was terrified and so I agreed. I signed the resignation letter and was given the money. Whoever raises their head suffers the most. [81]

M.G.R. Nasir Majumder, managing director of the Sadia Garments, denied all allegations and told Human Rights Watch that the reported violence had nothing to do with management. “There was fighting between two groups of workers for leadership,” he stated. He further claimed that all was peaceful now and the workers’ union was functioning without any problems.[82] Earlier, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal he denied that the union organizers had been forced to resign. “Workers leave all the time. They get a better salary, they leave,” he said. He also claimed the photos of the injured worker were “artwork.”[83]

A worker at another factory said he was beaten up in August 2013 after he intervened on behalf of a fellow worker who had been fired without receiving the benefits he was entitled to. He said the production chief forced him to leave the factory on the back of a motorcycle driven by two men, who he described as mastans. The production manager followed them in a rickshaw to a building site, and there the men attacked the union leader.

They started beating me, slapping me, slapping on the ears and punching me, boxing me in the chest, on the sides, and I fell down, and then they started kicking me. I was screaming.[84]

A union leader described how in June 2014 management officials tried to bribe two union leaders to stop them from participating in the union at her factory. When they refused to give in, management officials threatened them. The management also hired local thugs to beat up some others:

Five of our workers were beaten up inside a chamber on the factory floor and the goons also flashed a gun at the workers. One male worker was beaten unconscious so we called the leader of our trade union federation, who called the police. Then the police came and controlled the situation.[85]

The trade union federation helped the union workers file a police complaint against several of the management officials but the union leader told Human Rights Watch that the police did not investigate the matter. The union leader was fired in September 2014 after she was absent from work for three days. “They used that as an excuse to fire me,” she said. “But the real reason is that I participate in union activities.”[86] She said unpaid salary is still due her.

My salary is pending for the last month and for nine days of this month but they [management officials] said ‘as long as you are involved in union activities, we will see how you are able to get your salary from us.’ They also told me that if ‘you try to get legal help, you will not succeed.’[87]

Some workers also alleged that they were beaten up, harassed, intimidated, threatened, and sacked for efforts to unionize at Global Trousers Ltd. factory in Chittagong. Mitu Datta, who works in the factory’s finishing department, said that on August 26, 2014, six men attacked him and his wife Meera Basak (who is a junior sewing operator there) while they were outside the factory gate waiting for a bus. Basak is acting president of the union while Datta is a member of the union. Datta said the men, their faces covered by cloth, beat him and his wife with iron bars. Basak bore the brunt of the attack, he said.

Four people were holding me and beating me on the legs with bars and two people were beating her with iron bars. She was beaten on her head and on her back. Her arms were severely injured and bleeding. Bones of one of her fingers were broken. She had to get 14 stitches on her head. When they were beating up Mira, they were saying ‘You want to do union activities? Then we will shower you with blood.’[88]

According to the New York Times, a law firm representing the Azim Group, which owns the factory, said that the incident was linked to a personal dispute and it “occurred outside working hours, outside the factory grounds, outside any industrial dispute.”[89] The company said it had covered the costs of Basak’s medical treatment.[90]

Datta, however, said the management had tried to force him to sign a blank piece of paper since the incident. He told Human Rights Watch that one evening he was detained for several hours in a room with a hired mastan standing guard outside to coerce him to sign.

The union’s general secretary Nurunnahar Begum described the situation as follows:

The management and the employers always treat us as if we are animals. For doing union-related activities, we have to suffer so. So why are we doing union work? If the government ensures worker safety, then we can work peacefully in the factory and have good relations with employers. But the most important thing is that the management of the factory can’t accept trade unions and they have a negative perception of unions.[91]

After an incident in November 2014 targeting union workers at another factory, Global Garments Ltd., owned by the same group, two major apparel companies, Li & Fung and VF Corporation, temporarily suspended orders from both Azim group factories in Chittagong.[92] In January 2015, in response to a letter by Human Rights Watch, PVH Corporation said it had ceased placing orders with the Azim Group and imposed a deadline by which Azim management needed to implement remedial measures across its entire organization.[93] Li & Fung responded to Human Rights Watch explaining that such incidents were a serious violation of their Code of Conduct and that they continue to engage with the management “to address these issues and to put in place corrective measures so that they do not happen again.”[94]

Under mounting pressure from buyers, the Azim Group and the union at Global Garments Ltd. signed a memorandum of understanding on December 28, 2014 agreeing to significant remedial measures including reinstatement for four union leaders the company had effectively fired; back pay for those four and other union leaders forced to stay out of work after the violence of November 10; a schedule for regular meetings between management and union members; and broad reassurances on respect for the rights to organize and bargain collectively.[95]

In February 2015, the New York Times reported that several international buyers that had suspended business with the Azim Group, including PVH Corporation and VF Corporation, had agreed to resume orders following weeks of negotiations.[96] The management of Global Trousers factory signed a memorandum of understanding with the workers union on February 3 in which it promised to recognize and bargain with unions, and abandon all complaints and objections brought against the union.[97]

Intimidation and Threats

As noted above, even when workers involved in setting up unions are not physically attacked, they often face threats, intimidation, and increased workloads. In some cases union leaders have also been threatened at their homes by managers and mastans.

For instance, in one Dhaka-based factory, female union leaders faced threats and abuse, and dramatically increased workloads, between submission of their union registration forms in February 2013 and registration of the union in April 2013. Human Rights Watch interviewed six women who helped set up the union and all said a primary motivating factor behind the union drive was to end extra work without overtime pay. All of them said they were harassed for having sought to register a union to try to stop the practice,[98] and one even said she received threats at home: “When I submitted the registration forms, local gangsters came to my house and threatened me. They said, ‘If you come near to the factory we will break your hands and legs.’”[99] Similarly, some workers at a different factory told us that some union members had been forced to leave their homes after receiving threats when they filed union registration papers in 2014.[100]

According to four workers we spoke to at another Dhaka factory, managers offered bribes and made threats in efforts to dissuade workers from forming a union. One worker described what happened after managers discovered what they were doing to organize the union:

They said that if we set up a union we would be sacked, that the foreign buyers would not want to place orders. For the slightest mistakes they would threaten to sack us. They even tried to bribe us. They said that they would give us whatever we wanted so long as we didn’t form the union. But we didn’t believe them and stuck with this.[101]

Eventually more than 400 of the factory’s 500 workers signed papers supporting the union, and the union was registered in November 2013.

As noted above, Human Rights Watch documented several instances in which managers and owners tried to isolate union leaders or members and targeted them with threats of dismissal or violence. In one small Dhaka-based factory, for instance, the president of the union said he was first threatened and then offered bribes to prevent him from forming a union:

The problem was that whoever used to raise their voices in protest was fired. So we decided to form a union. 104 workers signed the papers. The chairman [of the factory] said to us, ‘Why are you doing this? I have a big hand, my hand is very big, and if you go there, I will take care of you.’ They identified me as a troublemaker and tried to have me thrown out. They said there was less work so I had to go. But the workers started a protest so I was allowed back. Then the owners tried to increase my salary or even promote me. But I argued that I wouldn’t take an increase unless everyone did. [102]

The 18 workers who organized the union at another Dhaka factory have faced threats and abuse since the time managers discovered what they wanted to do. Human Rights Watch interviewed eight members of the union who said that the factory employs between 400-600 workers and makes clothes for several European retailers. The union’s president described what happened when managers first heard what the workers were doing:

I was elected the president of my trade union by my colleagues and we started to organize confidentially. But one day the floor supervisor found out. He started to threaten me. He said, ‘You will be killed by the owners.’ He then slapped me, insulted me, and said I would lose my job.[103]

The union was registered September 29, 2013, and although no one was fired, workers report increasing pressure on union members, who are given extra workloads and subjected to insults if they fail to deliver.[104] In January 2014, the workers said they had asked managers to join them in a meeting to discuss factory conditions, but their request was denied. One manager told them that if they tried to “fight the owner” they would be left unable to walk.[105]

A union leader at another factory said he was repeatedly threatened, and eventually fired. He said:

A line chief called me, and told me, ‘You talk too much with other workers, which creates a problem, so you must stop this.’ And he told me: ‘Don’t leave the line without permission, even if you go to the toilet, you must get permission.’ I asked, ‘I am not doing anything bad, so why is there any problem?’ And he replied, ‘I told you not to do this, and you will not do it.’ [106]

Workers said that factory management at a Gazipur factory has succeeded in stopping all union activities after four organizers were fired.[107] “Management told the workers that if you have any problem with the factory, you can just get out. Now there are only 12 members left in the union but there is nothing official, nothing in writing. It is just a verbal agreement among us. I am always scared that I could be fired at any time, so that is why I stay quiet.”[108]

Threats of Sexual Violence

Some female interviewees involved in organizing unions said they received threats or insults of a sexual nature.[109] For example, a worker at a Dhaka-based factory told us:

One day, after I had started work, my supervisor called me into his chamber and started threatening me. It was 10:40 in the morning. He told me to leave the factory because I was leading the union. He said I was making the place dirty, polluting it. ‘Go and work in a brothel,’ he told me. After that incident I felt really bad and stayed quiet for some time. But then I realized that this is how managers and supervisors try to scare the workers. I decided not to step back and started to fight for the union with more dedication.[110]

Another worker in the same Dhaka-based factory said that after she helped establish the union, she was ordered to do more kinds of work than before, making it harder to meet her targets, prompting more verbal abuse.

They would make me do belt loops, waistband, and sleeve-cuffs. And then when I didn’t meet a target they would be screaming at me saying words I cannot use even here, insulting me and my relatives. Disgusting words.[111]

A worker in a different Dhaka-based factory also said that a supervisor made anti-union threats of a sexual nature: “In the sewing section, when the line supervisor walks up and down he says that anyone who is in the union will be stripped naked and kicked into the street.”[112]

Hasina Akhter Hashi was among four labor activists of the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity (BFWS) who were assisting workers form a union at Chunji Knit Ltd. in Dhaka on February 22, 2014, when they came under attack.[113] She and another woman were separated from their male colleagues during the incident and threatened with rape. “During the attack, one of management representatives threatened to separate me and Rita, saying that they will take us aside and rape us.”[114]

Dismissal of Union Organizers and Members

As noted in several of the cases above, owners sometimes also dismiss workers who chose to form unions. Some of the workers subsequently find it hard to find work elsewhere, suggesting that factory owners may share names or maintain a blacklist of labor activists.

For instance, in July 2013 and March 2014, workers tried to organize a union at a Mirpur-based subcontractor factory, but on both occasions organizers were dismissed. Human Rights Watch interviewed four of these organizers. One of those involved in the first attempt described what happened:

When they heard about me, the owner of the factory called me into his office. He tried to bribe me with a promotion, saying I should stop setting up the union. But we wanted it to establish our rights, and get our wages and bonuses on time, so I refused. Since I was the leader they then put a lot of pressure on me. They threatened to take my life. They then sacked me and 48 senior workers and even filed a case against me for organizing a strike.[115]

In March 2014, workers tried again. One of the leaders said she was then dismissed:

Somehow the factory bosses came to know that we had visited a union federation to fill in our registration forms. After that, the floor-in-charge would insult me whenever he had a chance. Then, on March 24, when I was planning another visit to the federation and was collecting phone numbers of other workers he saw me. He snatched the list of workers from me and said that this is what he had been looking for. After my duty was over he forced me to sign a resignation letter.[116]

One worker at the factory described above where more than 100 workers were dismissed shortly after they filed union registration papers, told Human Rights Watch:

The factory terminated 86 workers who are members of the union, and the management told all of them, ‘You’re being fired for union activities.’ Since then, our union has tried to get the workers reinstated but the management refuses and tries to pay them off instead. If we include all the persons on the original union committee and others who have been fired, the number of fired workers from the union is 106.[117]

Similarly, a day after a group of workers submitted their application to the labor department to form a union at their factory in Ashulia in January 2014, managers dismissed them and 100 others. The former president of the union, Nazimuddin, said they were forced to sign bank sheets of paper:

We don’t know how the company got the list of members, but maybe one of the workers told the management, or the JDL [labor department] gave them the list? We still don’t know. At the end of work on January 27 at 8 p.m. at the factory gate, management forced the workers to sign the blank papers and all 120 signed. The management intimidated the workers, and told them that they all had to sign because from tomorrow they are going to close down the factory, and that was why they had to sign the paper. Some of the workers said they didn’t want to sign the paper, and some refused to do so, but then management told them that ‘if you don’t sign, you can’t leave and if you don’t sign, then the management will have to beat you.’ They also told them that ‘if you don’t sign the paper, you will not get the wages that you are owed.’ It was late at night when this was happening, and that area around the factory is considered dangerous and people were afraid to stay longer. So finally everyone signed.[118]

Needless to say, union leaders are often among those who are dismissed during such purges of union members. One union leader at a Dhaka factory told us she was fired merely for having visited the union federation offices.[119]

A union leader at another factory said that not only was he dismissed, but he suspects that his name had been passed on to other factories, preventing alternate employment.

The question I have is how can I survive with my family? Because now I have no money at all. I know there is a blacklist that has my name on it. This is what prevents me from getting a job somewhere else. I know this because when I went out to look for work, the people at the factory office tell me I will not get it. What I have heard is the factory managers have lists with photos of the faces of union people in them.[120]

Union leaders at EFE Textiles allege that in April 2014, they were threatened with violence by factory management and forced to resign. They say that they have been unable to find work apart from in a low-paid subcontractor factory, and suspect their names have been shared with other factory owners.[121]

Md. Aslam Hossain, a senior manager at the factory, denied the management prevented workers from unionizing or forced any workers to resign because of their unionizing efforts. “We did not threaten anyone. Sometimes there are problems. Some people have left because they didn’t want to work with us. We did not force anyone to resign. People have resigned of their own choice,” Hossain told Human Rights Watch.[122]

At another Dhaka factory, union leaders allege that the managers are trying to force the 18 founding members of the union to leave. “They threatened one of us so much that he decided to resign. Managers have increased our production targets dramatically. The ironing man who used to have to do 20 pieces per hour now has to do 30, and has to suffer insults if he is late to finish it.”[123]

After the union at a factory in Gazipur was registered in March 2013, four of its organizers and many other workers were fired.[124] A union leader said he was fired in front of a local government official and member of the industrial police.

I was threatened and scolded, and then finally one day they called me to their room, and said I was terminated and I had to leave this place. Senior managers were there, also the representative of local area chairman. He said, ‘If we see you inside the factory gate, how can you survive? Because we will kill you.’ One industrial policeman was also present but he didn’t say anything. I asked them, ‘What is my fault? Why are you firing me?’ And the management person was quiet. Finally, they confined me for two hours in that room, but I still refused to sign their paper. They didn’t get a chance to beat me, because the door was open and finally when they were not paying attention, I ran away.[125]

Criminal Complaints

Some factory owners file criminal complaints against workers who form unions as well as staff from national worker federations who support them. Those against whom such complaints have been filed say that these are false charges and trumped up against them in retaliation for their union activity. In some cases, agreements reached to end labor disputes expressly stipulate that all such criminal complaints will be withdrawn.

For example, following the attack on four members of the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity (BFWS) who were helping workers at Chunji Knit organize a union, managers filed a criminal case against them and 45 factory employees.[126] BFWS staff said the workers have been accused of vandalizing the factory and stealing computers and air conditioners, but that the charges are without factual basis.[127]

Mohammed Nazrul Islam, who set up a union at another factory said managers falsely accused him of stealing a power generator from the factory. He was subsequently arrested, then released on bail.[128]

When the workers at Designer Jeans Ltd., a factory in Savar area, refused to stop union-related activities, the management filed criminal cases against 110 workers, including all factory-level union leaders, accusing them of theft, trespassing, destruction of property, and criminal intimidation.[129] After an agreement on November 15, 2014 between the owners, BGMEA, and Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation which represented the workers, all the cases were withdrawn.[130] The owners agreed to offer to reinstate a total of 195 workers, including the 110 facing criminal allegations.[131]

One of the suspended workers from the factory, also a union leader, told Human Rights Watch that the harassment from management officials had begun soon after they applied to register a union.

The management started threatening us union members and leaders saying, ‘We will hire local goons to beat you up unless you stop all your union activities.’ They gave us an ultimatum of seven days to ‘stop your union activities otherwise we will have you killed and disappeared.’[132]

The management of Designer Jeans factory repeatedly tried to stop the union from being registered, and apparently even tried to register a fake union— the authorities said that they had received another application at the same factory and many of the workers’ names overlapped in the two applications.[133] The suspended worker explained:

They [labor authorities] said, ‘Since there can’t be dual membership in unions we can’t accept your application.’ So we knew that management had sponsored a ‘yellow union.’[134] But this time, angry factory workers protested at the office of the joint director of labor and we were reassured that we would be able to get the union registered the next time around.[135]

In signing the November 2014 memorandum of understanding, the owners agreed that workers would henceforth “be able to join any union of their choice,” and would not face discrimination for joining a union.[136]

Workers alleged that the management of Fresh Fashion Wear, a factory in Ghazipur also filed allegedly false criminal complaints against union members and fired them. A union leader, in hiding to avoid arrest on vandalism allegations, told Human Rights Watch:

We are all on the run. The police didn’t visit my home in the city but went to my village home to inquire about me. The management has complained that I was carrying iron rods in the factory and stole some garments from the factory to sell. They had warned me. Management officials said that ‘We don’t need any unions in factories. If unions exist in factories, we will take action against union members.’[137]

In their response to Human Rights Watch, the management at Fresh Fashion denied these allegations and said there are no restrictions on joining trade unions. They also explained that some employees caused unrest and damaged property making illegal demands in July 2014 and that after investigations the management suspended the culprits.[138]

The Far-Reaching Effects of Attacks on Union Organizers

Rita Akhter, a labor activist who was physically attacked when helping to form a union at Chunji Knit, noted that assaults on union leaders had a chilling effect on many workers’ efforts to form unions in the surrounding area:

The workers say to us, ‘Even you organizers were beaten up by the factory management—so how can you protect us, what will be our fate if we join you?’ And now many workers in many nearby factories are very afraid because factories are using this situation as an example of what can happen, and people are scared.[139]

Similarly, employer retaliation against a large number of workers who had filed union registration papers at another factory, including the dismissal of scores of workers and physical threats against leaders, had far-reaching consequences. As one worker explained:

The other workers still in the factory are saying to us, ‘See you were trying to form a union in the factory and now you’re out, so why should we want to form a union?’ What we see is the government gave permission to form a union in the workplace but then they do not back up their commitment.[140]

Factory owners interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they do not believe that permitting the existence of independent trade unions will improve factory conditions. One owner accused union organizers in his factory of fighting among themselves for control of the union; another was afraid that political parties might try to manipulate the unions.[141]

Political parties do indeed seek to organize and control groups representing lawyers, teachers, and other professions, and are closely involved in some of the national-level worker federations. However, Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that the factory-level unions contacted for this report are linked to parties, though they had received support from national worker federations. Rather than seeking personal gain, several of the organizers said they had actually rejected bribes or promotions offered by managers in exchange for leaving the union. In contrast, several of the owners of the factories featured in this report are prominent members or funders of the political parties.

One of the trade union organizers explained why he thought unions are important. “We need unions to build a good relationship, a bridge between the owners and the workers, to help us solve problems. I know that they [factory management] think I’m a trouble maker, and they are afraid of me, but there is nothing they should be afraid of, we need to sit together and negotiate.”[142]