Killing of union leader puts spotlight on workers’ abuse in Bangladesh

Friday, September 22, 2023

(HRW photo)

PanOrient News

TOKYO: The killing of a Bangladeshi union chief in June has brought into focus the conditions of workers and workers’ rights in Bangladesh, particularly in garment factories producing branded goods for foreign outlets, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Shahidul Islam was the Gazipur president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), an independent union federation. According to police, he and other representatives met with officials from Prince Jacquard Sweater, Ltd., to try to resolve workers’ complaints regarding unpaid wages for the months of May and June and an Eid bonus. As the representatives were leaving the factory, a gang approached and threatened them for helping workers. The attackers beat Islam unconscious and he was declared dead at a hospital.

The police, as quoted by HRW as saying they have no information regarding the motives of the attack and the factory management has denied it was involved in any way.

“Islam’s killing is a chilling reminder of the dangers facing independent labor union leaders,” said Aruna Kashyap, associate corporate accountability director at Human Rights Watch. “Brands and suppliers should not rely on social audits and certifications as they are woefully inadequate, particularly in preventing violence and harassment of workers seeking to form or join independent labor unions.”

Previous Human Rights Watch research has shown that standard social audits present greater risks for labor abuses being under-detected or undetected, especially for issues like discrimination and harassment, forced labor, child labor, and freedom of association.

The factory operated by Prince Jacquard Sweater Ltd. had undergone audits under two commonly used social audit systems. In 2018, Human Rights Watch said brands and retailers globally should revamp how they monitor workers’ rights to freedom of association in factories from which they source.

The failure of the Bangladesh authorities and garment manufacturers to curb abuses in the rights of independent labor unions to operate has contributed to the violence and harassment of independent labor unions and workers, Human Rights Watch said.

Brands typically rely upon standard social audit or certification programs. These are private inspections of work sites usually conducted by audit firms to assess compliance with their codes of conduct, including labor standards. Such inspections are conducted over a few days and typically paid for by brands or suppliers, with workers interviewed inside factory premises, which is not a safe space for workers to speak out about their working conditions. These audit reports are not published and critics say governments need to closely scrutinize the social auditing industry.

Observers say brands should support the creation of a monitoring and grievance redress system in consultation with independent labor unions and labor rights organizations operating in Bangladesh, adding that brands should also review and adopt fair purchasing practices and mitigate the risk of causing or contributing to labor abuses.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations noted in its 2022 report a series of legal and other practical barriers, and union-busting tactics used by employers, that thwarted Bangladeshi workers’ ability to join and form unions of their choosing. Bangladesh law does not allow the formation of unions in factories located inside export processing zones.

A 2020 US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on Bangladesh noted concerns about yellow unions in Bangladesh – unions controlled by employers – and that the practice “has resulted in authorities rejecting the registration application of independent unions because another union already exists.”

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