Bangladesh: Widespread garment worker protests over minimum wage increase; leads to mass dismissals

In September 2018, the Bangladesh government moved to raise the monthly minimum wage for garment workers - for the first time in five years - to Tk 8,000 (USD 96), up from the previous Tk 5,300 (USD 63). Many garment workers are dissatisfied with the increase, as workers rights organisations and trade unions had been calling for at least Tk 16,000. Others were unhappy about a discrepancy in the increase between junior and senior workers. While workers claim the increase is not enough to cover increased living costs, factory owners say they cannot afford to pay increased wages.

In January 2019, thousands of garment workers staged protests for increased minimum wages, particularly for those on mid-range wage grades who had effectively received no increase under the changes. Some protests were met with force by the authorities. After one violent clash, where police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds, one person was killed and 50 others injured.

In response, the government formed a 'tripartite committee' to review garment worker wages and on 13 January the committee agreed to modest wage increases to the lower and mid-range worker grades. The gross monthly wage of Tk 8,000 proposed in September remained unchanged. Following this development, manufacturers urged workers to return to work, however thousands of workers continued to protest, rejecting the pay hike as insufficient.

Approximately 5,000 factory workers have been fired after being accused of looting and vandalism during the protests. However, unions have accused the industry of intimidation and a crackdown, claiming the number of workers fired is closer to 11,000. Metro Knitting & Dyeing Mills Ltd. was named in a media report as one of the factories who had dismissed workers. In February 2019, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Fast Retailing, who source from Metro Knitting, to respond. The response is included below. 

In a statement (included below), H&M - which sources from three factories that have dismissed workers - said it is "closely observing the situation" and the "well-being of the workers at our suppliers’ factories is a priority."

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Article
14 March 2019

Bangladesh: Unions call to release detainees & reinstate over 12,000 garment workers dismissed after wage protests

Author: IndustriALL

"Bangladesh unions call to reinstate over 12,000 retrenched garment workers", 8 March 2019

In a letter to the Minister of labour and employment... the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC) demanded immediate intervention of the government to withdraw false cases, free the imprisoned and reinstate all dismissed workers in the backdrop of mass protests for wage hike across readymade garment manufacturing units.

Over a hundred workers were imprisoned, over 12,000 were retrenched and cases were filed against over 5,000 workers in the aftermath of workers’ protests against a meager wage hike in December 2018 to January 2019...

Employers of 107 readymade garment units used this opportunity to punish innocent workers for participating in union activities, as most of the dismissed workers are plant level trade union activists and union members. About 2, 500 workers were dismissed at the East West Group and Abonti Color Tex factories. On 26 February, a total of 300 workers at Garib&Garib Company Limited were fired without receiving two month’s wages.

Employers are using a database of over 3.5 million garment workers, collected and maintained by the BGMEA to blacklist dismissed workers and union activists from getting jobs in a new company. After the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, it was difficult identify workers as no credible record was maintained and a database was created for a record of workers - This is now also being used for blacklisting workers.

Many companies have published photos and names of retrenched workers on their website, making it difficult for them workers to find alternative employment...

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Item
6 March 2019

Bangladesh: Human Rights Watch calls on govt. & global brands to investigate dismissals of protesting garment workers & end 'false' criminal charges

Author: Human Rights Watch

"Bangladesh: Investigate Dismissals of Protesting Workers", 5 March 2019

Bangladesh authorities should immediately investigate garment worker and union leader allegations of arbitrary dismissals and false criminal cases following a recent protest demanding a wage hike, Human Rights Watch said... Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh should investigate these allegations and call for an end to all forms of intimidation of workers.

After strikes in mid-January 2019, union leaders have reported at least 7,500 garment workers were dismissed from their jobs. Some of those dismissed were accused of vandalism and looting, but the allegations appeared broad and vague. At least 29 criminal cases have been filed naming 551 individuals, as well as over 3,000 unidentified people, leaving workers at risk of being arbitrarily accused in one of these cases at a later date. Over 50 workers have been arrested, 11 of whom were denied bail...

The use of criminal complaints against large numbers of “unknown” people is a common abusive practice in Bangladesh, allowing the police to intimidate and threaten virtually anyone with arrest, repeatedly re-arrest detainees even though they are not the named accused in the cases, and thwart bail. Union leaders told Human Rights Watch that many workers were in hiding out of fear of arbitrary arrest under these unnamed cases...

Brands sourcing from Bangladesh like H&M, KiK, Tchibo, Lidl, Mango, Next, Matalan, VF, Takko, ALDI, Marks & Spencer, Esprit, Walmart, JCPenny, and Tesco have the responsibility to respect and protect workers’ rights. They should call for an end to dismissals based on the exercise of basic rights and other forms of intimidation...

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Article
4 March 2019

Bangladesh: Banks fail to hold H&M accountable to living wage promises, says Fair Action report

Author: Fair Action (Sweden), Fair Finance Guide International, The Future in Our Hands (Norway)

"Shareholders of H&M fail to take responsibility for garment workers’ wages", 31 January 2019

H&M did not keep the promise to make it possible for 850 000 garment workers to earn a living wage by 2018. Several Nordic banks are among H&M’s largest owners...However, the banks have not used their influence to hold H&M accountable for its living wage commitment, a new report by Fair Action and Fair Finance Guide shows...

The report outlines the investments of Danske Bank, DNB, Handelsbanken, KLP, Länsförsäkringar, Nordea, SEB, Skandia, Storebrand and Swedbank as well as four savings banks (Sparebank 1 Nord-Norge/ SMN/SR/Östlandet) in the Nordic brands H&M, KappAhl, Lindex and MQ. The four fashion companies all buy clothes from Bangladesh, where employees in the factories are among the lowest paid in the world. H&M is the world's largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh. Around 80 percent of the work force in the country's garment sector is female. 

The report shows that none of the banks are doing enough to push for living wages in the four companies’ supply chains. More specifically, the banks have not demanded that the garment companies set concrete objectives in terms of measurable wage increases.

[Full report attached below]

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Article
1 March 2019

Bangladesh: Factory producing charity T-shirts for UK under investigation for mass sackings & labour abuses

Author: Simon Murphy, The Guardian

"'Girl power' charity T-shirts made at exploitative Bangladeshi factory", 1 March 2019

Charity “girl power” T-shirts sold in the UK are made at a Bangladeshi factory where more than 100 impoverished workers claim to have been sacked after striking in protest at low wages... The £28 garments are sold online by F=... with £10 from each T-shirt donated to Worldreader, a charity...

... the garments were made by Bangladeshi firm Dird Composite Textiles, where some workers earn as little as 42p an hour and complain of harassment. In one case, a female employee was beaten on the orders of the management and threatened with murder. After being contacted...

Machinists... say they have been sacked en masse after striking over wages in January... executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity... said: “...The workers that got fired know the law and their rights. In many cases they were union leaders... These workers are picked intentionally.”...

The shirts are made by Stanley/Stella.... that made the Spice Girls T-shirts... F=...said: “...Stanley/Stella... have explained that this... is being investigated by the Fair Wear Foundation and Stanley/Stella’s country manager...

A Stanley/Stella spokesman said: “...some progress is still to be made with regards to social compliance... by producing garments in Bangladesh, responsible European brands – like Stanley/Stella – can drive a positive change.”

Dird’s group... said that the company operated “with the highest regard for ethical and moral standards” and denied any suppression or targeting of worker representatives. He said that the staff who left resigned “because they were not satisfied with the new [government] wage structure...” and... “all workers that resigned have either received their due financial entitlements or have been contacted to collect...[them]”...

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Article
21 February 2019

Bangladesh: H&M statement on garment worker protests & mass dismissals

Author: H&M

"Unrest in Bangladesh", 7 February 2019

The garment workers’ frustrations clearly highlight the need for strengthened industrial relations in the country...

However, even though we understand and fully sympathize with the garment workers’ frustrations, we cannot encourage vandalism and violence as a means to an end. We strongly encourage peaceful conflict resolution for all parties in all situations and see ourselves as an enabler to make that happen... We support increased wages for garment workers...

... a settlement (a MoU) has been signed by factory management, associated trade unions... and worker representatives. We understand garment workers have recently been dismissed from three factories that produce for H&M group amongst others, and we are closely observing the situation to ensure that the documents and agreements that have now been signed are acknowledged and approved by all parties, outlining valid information and appropriate grounds for termination of employment. This issue will remain at the top of our agenda and we stay in close contact with the suppliers, industry association, trade unions and other buyers.

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Article
10 February 2019

Bangladesh: How little H&M would have to raise t-shirt prices to pay its Bangladesh factory workers a living wage

Author: Oliver Pechter, Business Insider Nordic

"Here’s how little H&M would have to raise t-shirt prices to pay its Bangladesh factory workers a living wage", 1 June 2017

The factory workers producing Swedish clothing retailer H&M’s clothes make on average SEK 750 krona ($86) per month. Meanwhile, a living wage in Bangladesh is more than double, SEK 2083 ($239). 

This according to Sasja Beslik, Head of Sustainable Finance at Nordea Wealth Management, whose team has crunched the numbers behind H&M's supply chain vs. its retail prices. Beslik concludes that a fairly small hike in clothing prices could help pay living wages to the company's Bangladeshi workers...

If shirt prices were to go up 2,88 krona [$0.33] in stores, H&M could pay double salaries to factory workers. If prices then would rise a further 2,18 krona [$0.25], H&M could pay out living wages to the workers in Bangladesh...If the factory workers received a living wage, the shirt would cost 179 krona ($20,50) – that is, 5 krona [$0.55] more than the current price...

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Article
8 February 2019

Bangladesh: H&M responds to sacking of garment workers following minimum wage protests

Author: bdnews24.com

"H&M responds to sacking of Bangladesh garment workers, says 'deeply concerned'", 7 January 2019

The clothing giant issued a statement... [following] media reports that the factories sacked thousands of workers for joining the protests for better wages, which included suppliers of H&M.

“We understand garment workers have recently been dismissed from three factories that produce for H&M group amongst others, and we are closely observing the situation to ensure that the documents and agreements that have now been signed are acknowledged and approved by all parties, outlining valid information and appropriate grounds for termination of employment,” H&M said.

“Even though we understand and fully sympathise with the garment workers’ frustrations, we cannot encourage vandalism and violence as a means to an end.” “We strongly encourage peaceful conflict resolution for all parties in all situations and see ourselves as an enabler to make that happen.”...

“Workers who chanted slogans or left factories and joined in processions to demand wage increases, and the ones who have any link to trade bodies, are now losing jobs,” ... head of the Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Trade Union Centre [said]...

At least 7,580 workers from 27 factories had been laid off in recent weeks, according to...head of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.

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Company response
8 February 2019

Fast Retailing's response

Author: Fast Retailing

Respecting human rights and ensuring fair working conditions are a top priority for Fast Retailing. In the Fast Retailing Group Code of Conduct for Production Partners, we place great emphasis on working conditions, and respect for worker rights throughout our supply chain, including freedom of association.

Immediately after being informed by our partner factory of the dismissals at the Metro Knitting factory in Bangladesh, Fast Retailing deployed an audit team to evaluate the situation and to communicate with key stakeholders. We learned that factory management and employees reached a legal severance agreement and that the dispute has now been solved. We also confirmed that all necessary actions were taken by the factory management to withdraw the police case filed against the workers.

Article
6 February 2019

Bangladesh: Commerce minister calls for global brands to pay 'fair prices' for apparel to meet increasing cost of production

Author: The Daily Star

"Minister seeks fair prices for apparel", 6 February 2019

Bangladesh demanded fair prices for garment items from the US retailers and brands as the local apparel exporters spent billions of dollars to strengthen workplace safety that increased the cost of production. Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi made the call during a meeting with US Ambassador in Bangladesh...

“The cost of production has increased by 25 percent to 30 percent over the last five years due to remediation of the garment factories as per the recommendations of the Accord and Alliance, two foreign agencies for building inspection.”..

The minister said, for instance, the t-shirt which was supposed to be produced at a cost of $1 earlier now costs as high as $1.25 or $1.30 a piece. “So, we can demand around 25 percent to 30 percent rise in the price of garment items now.”

“We will hold a meeting with the CEOs of almost all major retailers and brands like Walmart, Inditex, Target and Primark soon to urge them to increase the prices of garment items as we spent a lot of money to fix the loopholes in the factories,” the minister said.

Munshi also said the buyers always demand higher compliance at the factory level, but they do not want to increase the prices of the products...

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Article
5 February 2019

Bangladesh: Commerce Minister seeks ILO’s help for fair price of ready-made garments

Author: Mehedi Hasan, The Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh

"Commerce minister seeks ILO’s help for fair price of RMG items", 3 February 2019

Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi yesterday urged the International Labour Organization (ILO) to play a role in raising the price of Bangladesh of readymade garment (RMG) items...

He said owners had to spend huge amount of money for modernization and safety work in RMG factories after the Rana Plaza incident, and implementation of new wages also pushed the expenditure further, but “buyers of RMG items have not increased the price in accordance with it”.

[The Minister] said Bangladesh’s RMG sector has reached this stage after overcoming adverse situations and the government is working sincerely to ensure reasonable wages to labourers...The ILO country director said that Bangladesh’s labour industry has attained visible development and hoped this progress will continue in future.

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