Failure of Government and Company Interventions
The poor and abusive working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories are not simply the work of a few rogue factory owners willing to break the law. They are the product of continuing government failures to enforce labor rights, hold violators accountable, and ensure that affected workers have access to appropriate remedies. While the Bangladesh government has taken steps since the tragedy of the Rana Plaza to strengthen its capacity to monitor factories and enforce the law, it bears responsibility for its failure over the years to enforce labor rights.
The companies, predominantly western, that source garments from Bangladesh also have a responsibility to take action to counter such abuses.
Failure of government interventions
The Bangladesh Department of Labor (DOL), within the Ministry of Labor and Employment is responsible for dealing with trade unions, but it is hampered by a lack of political will, capacity, and enforcement power.
The DOL registers unions and can investigate unfair labor practices such as the harassment of union officers and members. But there are no provisions or procedures in the law that require the DOL to investigate allegations of unfair labor practices, leaving follow-up on complaints entirely within the discretion of the DOL.
Furthermore, the DOL does not have the authority to enforce decisions such as reinstatement of wrongfully dismissed employees. For such violations, its powers are limited to filing complaints with a labor court. There are seven labor courts in Bangladesh as well as one Appellate Labor Court, but it can take years for cases to work their way through the courts. According to Alonzo Suzon of the Solidarity Center, these courts are slow and ineffective. “All they can do is file against management in the labor courts and, in the labor courts, the case gets stuck in an abyss, a dark hole,” he said.
A second department, the Directorate of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), is responsible for monitoring workplace safety and compliance. The government has strengthened this department since the Rana Plaza disaster. It agreed to do so in the “Sustainability Compact” that it signed with the EU, the US, and ILO in July 2013. Whereas DIFE used to have only 76 factory inspectors, the government has since authorized the number to increase to 575. The ILO is helping train new inspectors as they are hired.
Both the US and EU have expressed their concern over the government’s ongoing failure to protect labor rights. In an evaluation of progress made since the Sustainability Compact was signed, the EU noted in July 2014 that “the ability of the Ministry of Labour and Employment to investigate and prosecute unfair labour practices, including anti-union discrimination, intimidation and harassment cases effectively, expediently, and transparently, such as through the establishment of expedited procedures and public reporting of cases, must be improved.” In a statement released to mark the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza, the US government stated that “the government of Bangladesh must...do more to ensure protection when workers face intimidation and reprisals for trying to organize.”
Labor activists in Bangladesh go further, and accuse the DOL of bias in favor of the factory owners, who often also have strong political connections, and say that some staff are corrupt. “Instead of helping the unions as they are supposed to, they [labor department officials] help the owners. They are under pressure from higher authorities and there is also corruption. They don’t treat us well,” one union organizer said. He added that the corruption starts as soon as they try to register a new trade union.
When we go to apply for registration, they ask for bribes. If the union is approved, again at the time of registration, they ask for bribes. They also take bribes from the management and refuse to register unions.
When a DOL inspector visited one factory in March 2013 to investigate complaints that 120 workers had been dismissed for their union activities, workers said he clearly took the side of managers. The union’s president, Nazimuddin, recalls telling the government inspector about the problems at the factory:
He asked me. ‘Why do you want to form a union in the factory?’ I replied it is because we are deprived of many rights in the factory. I told him that I wanted to establish a union because we are not getting paid our wages on time and we don’t get the correct overtime payment, and the management doesn’t give us the various types of leave [guaranteed] in the labor law. He replied to me that if I really wanted to form a union then ‘I will slap you!’ I was shocked by that. I said that there are many problems in this factory. He told me that he didn’t know about any problems in the factory, and said that he already talked to management and other workers and they said that there are no problems here.
A few months later, the organizers were threatened with violence and were forced to resign for a second time. When they called the government inspector for help he told them that as it was a Saturday he did not want to talk to them.
Intervention In Labor Disputes
When there are disputes between workers and employers or violations of the Labor Act the law specifies that the case should be handled in a labor court. This comprises a judge, a representative of the employer, and a representative of the workers. But the labor courts have a reputation for being slow and ineffective. In its 2013 human rights report on Bangladesh, the US State Department noted that “Resources at the MOLE [Ministry of Labor and Employment] were inadequate to inspect and remediate problems effectively. Penalties for violating the law were not sufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial appeals were subjected to lengthy delays.”
In one case where government inspectors did formally investigate allegations of anti-union activities in 2013, their orders were ignored by the factory management. According to the US Department of State:
Workers applied to register a union at garment factory Rebeka Fashions in Kafrul, Dhaka, in December 2012. Four members of the union’s board stated they were beaten, and management told them to cease their organizing activities. Although the MOLE approved their union’s registration, the union’s board members stated employers harassed them and forced them to resign. The MOLE viewed the workers’ terminations as unlawful and ordered their reinstatement, but the factory owner did not rehire them.
There have been several more recent cases, however, in which managers have backed down and reinstated dismissed workers and allowed union activities to resume. This has occurred when the factory’s owners come under pressure from national trade union federations and the buyers, rather than the government.
In November 2014, for example, the owners of Designer Jeans Ltd. backed down in their dispute with workers wanting to form a union. In September they had filed criminal cases against 110 workers, including all factory-level union leaders, accusing them of theft, trespassing, destruction of property, and criminal intimidation, and suspended a total of 195 workers. In an agreement in November, brokered by a national trade union federation, the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation, and the BGMEA, all the charges were dropped and the workers reinstated. A union official involved in the dispute told Human Rights Watch that the decisive factor was the intervention of the German retailer, Lidl.
In September 2014, the Chunji Knit factory in Dhaka agreed to allow workers to freely organize a union and reinstate workers who had been fired for union activity. At least one of the factory’s customers, Sears, had investigated reports that labor activists had been attacked while helping workers at the factory organize a union.
In July 2014, the two garment factory owners’ associations in Bangladesh, the BGMEA and BKMEA, brokered an agreement between the owners of Pioneer Knitwear and the National Garment Workers’ Federation, after European companies Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and C&A intervened. In May 2014, mastans had attacked Munir Moniruzzaman Sikder, a union organizer with the NGWF, after managers discovered he was helping workers at Pioneer Knitwear form a union, Munir claimed. His office was vandalized and he was evicted from his home. Three workers involved in the union were dismissed.
In the agreement, the BGMEA and BKMEA agreed to pay for Munir’s medical costs and for damage to his home and office. They also said they would “try to ensure” that NGWF staff and worker activists would not face further intimidation in Bhaluka District. The factory owners agreed to reinstate or compensate the dismissed workers.
Such interventions, however, do not always bring lasting change. As a worker at Natural Apparels Ltd. in Dhaka told us:
The problems began when the owners came to know we were forming a union. They began abusing us, the ones who had formed it. We were overworked, and not allowed to use water or go to the toilet. We wrote to H&M about this, who [in September 2013] sent an email to the owner, saying they would visit. The day they came, the owners reduced the pressure on us. But after they left it went back to the way it was before.
H&M is phasing out its business with Natural Apparels Ltd (Rampura Production Unit), although it still does business with other units of the Natural Group. Although the company clarified that the phase out plan was initiated in April 2013 prior to the letter from workers noted above, a trade union federation official said that factory managers are using the H&M phase-out to further pressure the workers:
Since the H&M pull-out, the union has become weaker because there is more management harassment against the union. The harassment has not come directly against the union leaders, but rather indirectly—for example, when workers talk to union leaders on the floor, the supervisors verbally harass the workers, making the union leaders feel guilty. The H&M pull out is being used by management to say that they cannot accede to other union demands, and to make threats that if the union pushes the management too hard, they might have to shut down the factory.
H&M told Human Rights Watch that it had successfully initiated and facilitated negotiations between the unions and the owners of Natural Apparels leading to an agreement between them. “Our observations through worker interviews that harassment and anti-union activities were not present at Natural Apparels Ltd (Rampura Production Unit) at the time we concluded our phase out, is corroborated by the factory union.” H&M says it closed its investigations in September 2013. Workers say that the harassment resumed after H&M concluded its investigation.
Failure of Company Interventions
The responsibility of international brands to ensure that human rights abuses do not occur in their supply chain are laid out in the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and are recognized by many of the companies themselves. The major companies who buy Bangladeshi garments all demand that factories respect their codes of conduct. For example, the Swedish fashion giant, H&M, the largest buyer of Bangladeshi garments, says that commitment to its code is mandatory if suppliers “are to enter into a business relationship with H&M.” H&M says that its code of conduct is based on the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Among the ILO’s fundamental principles are the freedoms of association and collective bargaining.
Similarly, Walmart, the largest US-based buyer of Bangladeshi garments, said their suppliers “are contractually required to sign our Standards for Suppliers before they’re approved to produce merchandise for sale at Walmart.” Walmart insists, for example, that “suppliers must respect the right of workers to choose whether to lawfully and peacefully form or join trade unions of their choosing and to bargain collectively.”
Retailers say that factory standards are monitored by unannounced inspections conducted by their own staff, or by separate, specialist companies. Some retailers closely follow what happens in the factories that supply them, while other companies place orders through third party supply agencies and so have little to do with the actual factories. Smaller companies often do not conduct their own inspections but choose factories used by larger retailers that do conduct inspections.
A factory owner in Dhaka said that the companies can do a lot more to ensure compliance.
These companies operate on bulk orders. …. It is all about maximizing profits down the line. Even 2-3 cents can make the difference, but these companies don’t want to factor in compliance into costing.
BGMEA Vice President, Shahidullah Azim said, “We are raising our voice, asking for ethical buying from brands. They are asking for so many things, they should pay for it. Instead of paying compensation after a disaster, they should pay earlier to prevent such incidents.”
Human Rights Watch wrote to a number of brands. Some, like C&A, accept that audits can only go so far in improving factory working conditions. C&A says it believes that most of the challenges faced by the ready-made garment industry are a consequence of the difficulties in ensuring proper collective bargaining processes. It told Human Rights Watch that it was in talks with the global trade union federation IndustriALL Global Unions and its local affiliates to share ideas and start a joint project on this issue.
Trade union leaders said that while freedom of association and collective bargaining are part of companies’ code of conduct, in their experience, many audits and inspections carried out by company agents prior to the Rana Plaza collapse did not look into such issues or did so only superficially. Referring to inspections in general, and not those ones carried out on behalf of any particular company, Roy Ramesh Chandra, secretary general of the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, part of the IndustriALL Global Union, told Human Rights Watch that “They are more interested in making sure there is toilet paper in the toilet.”
Workers told Human Rights Watch that they also had the impression managers in their factories seemed to know in advance of inspection visits. “When the buyers visit everything is neat and clean, they even use fresheners in the toilets. Everything is made shiny,” one woman said. A worker from a different factory said that, “when the buyers come they make it all neat and clean and even invite us into the canteen for tea and biscuits. It is just to show how well they treat us.” A third said that managers warned employees not to complain about the factory when asked by inspectors.
Better inspections could have saved lives. According to a former worker at Tazreen Fashions which suffered the devastating fire, employees would be given safety equipment before visitors arrived, and had to return it after they left.
When the buyers came they used to provide us with masks, gloves, ID cards, and head scarves, and then they would take them away again. Whenever the foreigners came, they would tell us to put on our gear, and they would tell us not to say anything negative about the factory. If they were to ask us if we received our allowances we would say yes. Visitors came once to three times a month.
Similarly, former workers in three of the five factories housed in the Rana Plaza alleged that owners knew in advance about visits and would hide child workers. For example Abdour Rouf, who worked at one of the factories destroyed in the collapse, said that “there were some child workers. Whenever a buyer would come they would be asked not to come for the day or hide in a toilet.” Mohammed Hamidur Rahman, who worked at another factory that was destroyed in the accident, said that when buyers visited children “would be given leave.”
One factory owner told Human Rights Watch that, prior to the Rana Plaza disaster, safety inspections were primarily intended to just make factories “look good on paper” rather than ensure safety for workers. For example, the owner noted that inspectors would count how many fire extinguishers there were, but then fail to ask about the number of workers trained to use them. The owner added that inspectors hired by western companies frequently asked factory owners to make safety improvements, but then failed to ensure the required remedial work was carried out.
Since the Rana Plaza accident, however, new initiatives have been launched to inspect factories for safety. The first, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, is being run on behalf of 175 retailers, most of which are based in Europe. The Accord is overseeing improvements in 1,611 factories. The second initiative, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a group of 26 North American retailers, including Walmart, is inspecting and overseeing improvements in 587 factories. The government’s own inspectors, supported by the ILO and funded by the EU, are inspecting and overseeing improvements in the remaining factories, which number about 1,500.
A particularly difficult challenge is the monitoring of smaller factories that rely only on subcontracting. When they receive large orders that they cannot meet on their own, manufacturing factories often subcontract to other facilities which have no relationship with the retailers and are not monitored. While many retailers expressly forbid this practice, when hiring agents place large orders with quick turn-around times in factories that do not have the capacity to complete the work, these factories then naturally pass on some of the work to other factories.
Pay and working and safety conditions are often worse in subcontracting factories. This is not only because they are not inspected by the companies. They also have less secure sources of income, and owners are reluctant to invest in scaling up their safety measures, even as managers and workers are under more pressure to complete orders quickly.
The practice means that retailers can end up being supplied by factories with which they have previously refused to do business. For example, it was discovered following the fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory that it was still making clothes for Walmart on a sub-contractual basis even after Walmart had removed Tazreen from its list of authorized suppliers for having violated its code of conduct.
Yasser Yousuf Khan, Managing Director of Rebecca Fashions Limited in his response to queries from Human Rights Watch said that he was subcontracted by a supplier even though the factory was not certified by the company. However, he says that he was assured the certification was not needed, and so he invested in fulfilling the contract. “They said you do not require approval when you are working with an importer.” However, when the retailing company discovered this, they cancelled the orders leaving him “with unthinkable amounts of liabilities in our bank.”