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Bangladesh: Rights' groups urge brands to take action to free detained workers, companies respond

On December 11, 2016, workers at the Windy Apparel factory went on a strike following news of death of one of its employees after managers refused her repeated requests for time off. The factory supplies a number of well know high street brands including H&M, Inditex (known for the brand Zara), Esprit, Tesco, Arcadia, S Oliver, and Debenhams. The un-unionised workers at the factory approached managers seeking a tripling of minimum wages, set three years ago at $67 per month, along with a list of 15 other demands. After they were rebuffed, the workers walked out and in subsequent days employees from about 20 other factories in the area joined in. Trade union activists and leaders working in Ashulia say that the walk out by Windy workers and the subsequent stoppages at other factories took them by surprise. The BGMEA announced they would close 55 Ashulia-based factories under a provision of the Bangladesh labour law which allows an employer to close a factory “in the event of an illegal strike”. Whilst employers said that this was to stop vandalism, trade unionists saw this as a way to break the strike and stop engaging with the workers’ grievances. On the 21st December seven local labor leaders were detained following a meeting convened by the Industrial police. The labour leaders and activist are still in jails. The labour rights' groups calls upon brands to urge the factories in their supply chain to withdraw all criminal complaints related to the protests in Ashulia, and reinstate them. 

Twenty major international apparel retailers have issued a statement warning Prime Minister Hasina that industrial unrest in Bangladesh may damage the country’s reputation as a reliable sourcing market. They called on the government to form a new wage board for the garment workers. At the same time, the giant retailers said they “do not condone illegal activities by workers, labor groups.”

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited C&A, H&M, Gap, VF Corp and Inditex to respond to a joint letter by NGOs regarding this situation, and particularly to these two questions:

1. Has the company required the factories in their supply chain to withdraw all criminal complaints related to the protests in Ashulia?

2. Has the company required their supply chains to reinstate all factory workers suspended or fired related to the Ashulia protests?

Responses from C&A, Gap, H&M & Inditex included below, we will update this page with future responses.

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Article
1 March 2017

Human Rights Watch calls for brands to make binding agreements on Freedom of Association as arbitrary arrests of activists continue

Bangladesh: Stop Persecuting Unions, Garment Workers - 15 February 2017

…Garment workers and labor leaders are facing unfair or apparently fabricated criminal cases in Bangladesh after wage strikes in December 2016...Arbitrary arrests…are growing with each passing day...[as the] Bangladesh police stand guard in front of garment factories…when [they] re-opened…The Bangladesh authorities should immediately release those still in detention and drop all politically motivated charges. Global brands and donors attending the…Dhaka Apparel Summit hosted by the country’s garment export association should call on the government to stop all persecution of union leaders and protect workers’ freedom of association…Workers say that strikes are often the only means for them to raise their grievances…because the government and local employers retaliate against union organizers…Rights groups have information about 10 criminal complaints filed in December 2016…Union leaders and organizers have also now been questioned or arrested in relation to older cases…The police have not provided a full list of all those arrested and where they are being held…Human Rights Watch found the circumstances of many of the arrests following the Ashulia strikes point to politically motivated abuse of police powers to retaliate against labor organizers rather than credible allegations of crimes…Ashulia factories have also retaliated against an estimated 1,500 workers by indiscriminately firing or suspending them…

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Article
26 February 2017

Breakthrough in Bangladesh as unionists and garment workers are freed following international pressure

Author: Industriall

The majority of the 35 Bangladeshi unionists and garment workers arrested since December last year have been released, and the remaining should be released shortly. This follows an international campaign led by IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union against the Bangladesh government’s crackdown on the labour movement. A tripartite agreement was reached on 23 February between IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC), the Ministry of Labour and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, providing the release of the arrested trade unionists and garment workers. According to the agreement, those remaining will also be freed and cases against them disposed of.

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Article
26 February 2017

Retailers finally take part in apparel summit

Author: Daily Star

The top five clothing retailers who had earlier decided to boycott Dhaka Apparel Summit-2017 finally participated in the event yesterday as the government took measures for the release of the detained workers and labour leaders. H&M, Inditex (Zara), C&A, Next and Tchibo, which account for billions of dollars in annual garment purchases from Bangladeshi manufacturers, announced early this week that they would not participate in the summit as a mark of protest against the arrest and harassment of workers....But, finally we changed our decision as the government assured us that steps will be taken for the release of the detained workers and worker leaders, who were arrested at Ashulia for their alleged involvement in labour unrest in December last year...said a top official of a major brand.

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Article
22 February 2017

"In Unprecedented Action, Leading Retailers Withdraw from Bangladesh Garment Industry’s Annual Showcase Event"

Author: Clean Clothes Campaign

Five leading apparel companies -- H&M, Inditex (Zara), C&A, Next and Tchibo -- have pulled out as key speakers and participants from the Dhaka Apparel Summit,organized by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Their decision to withdraw is a response to the campaign of repression against the labor movement carried out by the Bangladesh government and factory owners over the last two months... The event,...on February 25, is the Bangladesh garment industry’s signature annual event; the Prime Minister of Bangladesh is the keynote speaker. The Ethical Trading Initiative, representing numerous apparel brands, has also withdrawn, as has the only scheduled speaker from a labor union. The unprecedented decision of apparel brands and other international actors to withdraw from the event is a major embarrassment for the Bangladesh government and the BGMEA. It underscores growing international concern over the deterioration of labor rights in the Bangladesh garment industry... Mirjam van Heugten from Clean Clothes Campaign says: 'Clearly our global labour campaign #EveryDayCounts #WagesNotJail targeting the brands linked to this repression is having an impact'...

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Article
17 February 2017

Demonstrations in front of Bangladesh embassies

Author: Prothom Also [Bangladesh]

Global union federations UNI and IndustriALL, which together represent over 70 million workers around the world, have staged demonstrations in front of Bangladesh embassies in major cities across the globe calling on the Bangladesh government to secure the dismissal of all unsubstantiated criminal cases against recently arrested trade unionists and garment workers, and to immediately release them from jail....These cities are located in countries that source more than three quarters of all exports by Bangladesh’s garment sector. The protests represent growing international concern regarding Bangladesh’s deviation from international norms to respect workers’ labor rights in their most important industry," said a report on the website of the International Labour Rights Forum.

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Company response
8 February 2017

Gap's response

Author: Gap

The safety of garment workers is of highest concern to Gap Inc., and we are troubled by the events in Ashulia. As a result of the recent unrest, Gap Inc. sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh outlining our concern, in addition to signing a joint brand letter that highlighted international buyers’ focus on ensuring all parties’ rights are fully protected and respected. We have also met with the BGMEA to discuss this issue, and to convey the points outlined in our letter. Gap Inc. does not interfere in the legal proceedings of vendors, however we are encouraging them to consider what is in the best long-term interest of Bangladesh’s garment sector. We feel that legal recourse is a last resort, and instead encourage vendors to resolve workplace-related issues through direct engagement and social dialogue. We are actively encouraging all parties to find a mutually acceptable solution to this issue through social dialogue, and will continue to monitor the ongoing situation until it is sustainably resolved.  

Article
7 February 2017

Bangladesh’s Crackdown on Labor

Author: New York Times

...A strike by workers at the Windy Apparels factory in December, to protest working conditions and shockingly low wages, set off protests that spread to dozens of factories. Owners responded by suspending or firing some 1,500 workers. Factory owners who produce clothing for brands like H&M, Gap, Walmart, C&A, Abercrombie and Fitch and Tommy Hilfiger filed criminal complaints against 25 labor activists and workers, charging some under the country’s sweeping 1974 Special Powers Act...2013 labor-law reforms did little to improve workers’ rights: As of last year, just 10 percent of Bangladesh’s more than 4,500 garment factories had registered unions. The minimum wage of 32 cents an hour has not been raised since 2013, despite inflation. The crackdown is clearly intended to intimidate workers and keep Bangladesh a low-wage country, thus protecting an industry that accounts for some 80 percent of export earnings.

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Company response
7 February 2017

C&A Response

Author: C&A

...Based on our ongoing collaboration with with the key stakeholders, we informed the Clean Clothes Campaign about the fact that none of our suppliers have suspended or filed criminal complaints against any workers. Nevertheless, C&A is closely monitoring the current developments to ensure that progress is made by all parties. We are convinced that through a joint effort by textile companies, local suppliers, political authorities, and NGOs, it will be possible to achieve comprehensive improvements. 

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Company response
7 February 2017

H&M Response

Author: H&M

...We remain in continuous dialogue with relevant global and local stakeholders, such as trade unions, the industry association BGMEA, other brands, as well as with involved suppliers. We are currently considering which further appropriate actions are to be taken. 

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Article
7 February 2017

Inditex Response

Author: Inditex

Inditex has individually contacted these suppliers that could have any direct/indirect relation with factories with presence in Ashulia area in order to urge them to respect as well as to remediate any harm to the right of freedom of association and collective bargaining of workers and labour union in particular. 

Download the full document here