Over two years after one of the worst industrial accidents in recent memory, Bangladesh’s garment workers are “safer” now—or so they’ve been told. So why do they still go to work afraid?

Two years after labor and industry groups brokered a hard-won pact to improve factory safety, the Bangladesh Accord, most of the industry appears to be failing basic safety benchmarks. Although the Bangladeshi government has enacted policies expanding labor oversight and facilitating unionization in factories, day-to-day working conditions remain abysmal.

New research from International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) suggests that one reason is that factory laborers face another, arguably more acute safety issue besides the threat of collapsing buildings or electrical fires: a climate of intimidation and desperation that could lead to job loss, abuse, or even murder for defending their rights—including their right to a safe workplace.

According to ILRF, which helped launch the Bangladesh Accord, “Workers report production targets and workloads so high managers prevent them from taking necessary restroom breaks, drinking water, leaving the factory at a reasonable hour, or getting leaves from work to attend to their own or their family members’ medical emergencies.”

While the poorly kept-up production plants themselves may verge on collapse, the structure of labor oppression is savagely robust. Although garment manufacturing, which employs more than 4 million workers across Bangladesh, has sparked rapid growth in the export economy, workers often must weigh the risk of any challenge to the employer against deep social disadvantage. Workers testify, in confidential interviews, about facing verbal, sexual, and physical abuse from higher-ups, and economic insecurity raises the stakes of all safety risks.

Interviewees recounted ritual humiliation by bosses who exploited the socially inferior position of workers, many of whom are rural migrant women.

When we made mistakes in our sewing, they slapped us, or made us stand at our desk, holding our ears. That’s a shaming activity that children who misbehave in schools have to do. It’s very humiliating.

Sewing-machine operator Rina Hossian described interwoven health and social hardships: “Suppose I am fainting from sickness. Even then, they don’t give us [medical] leaves. They harass us in many ways…. So in order to save our jobs, we don’t even say anything. We have to work for our survival.”

Bosses reportedly enforce unofficial codes of silence through thickets of political and patronage connections and local thugs.

Mehedi Khatun, iron operator and union representative, recalled the physical cost of pursuing unionization:

I am a poor man who is working. An outside terrorist could do anything to me if he is given 2,000-3,000 taka ($US 25-40).… They threatened me with many things. They verbally abused me. They told me to go to my native home by today, Friday. They forbade me to enter the factory from Wednesday onward.

Workers reported that thugs brazenly harass workers in public to coerce, or just fire, pro-union troublemakers. Or they engage in softer union busting—for example, sewing-machine operator Morsheda Masud’s union drive ended her seven years working as an on-site first-aid provider:

If someone had a cut or some other problems, most people would come to me. [When I started working to form the union], they took the key so that no one could come to me.

A sewing machine operator described safety as a calculus of myriad social, economic and physical risks: “I don’t think it’s safe. Suppose we work, we get scolded, pressured, they make us work for free until 9 or 10 pm, threatening us. Like that, we are not safe.”

Is it any wonder that workers might be reluctant to challenge bosses over international safety standards when basic standards of decency are brazenly flouted every day?

When sewing-machine operator Abdur Hassan saw his factory walls starting to rupture, workers were expected to simply absorb the risk:

We informed the owner, and the owner has inspected the cracks and painted them. They put some limestone in the cracks. I told them, “This crack, this crack is not safe for us. It’s risky. Isn’t it going to need repairing?” There are so many cracks. Something could happen at any moment.

The cracks in the system, too, are widening amid a patchwork of safety standards. The Bangladesh Accord remains the most comprehensive protocol, with about 200 multinational brands enrolled in a union-initiated “power-sharing agreement.” But a much smaller rival compact spearheaded by Walmart and other US-based multinationals, the Bangladesh Alliance, presents an arguably toothless alternative.

While the alliance replicates older systems of corporate voluntarism, essentially based on a nonbinding “code of ethics,” the accord ensures that trained inspectors have a direct line of communication with workers and union representatives. A grim sign of its effectiveness is the fact that bosses have retaliated ruthlessly against workers who have complained through the accord’s tripartite monitoring process.

Still, the accord, despite weak enforcement in its implementation phase, does provide an unprecedented framework for engaging rank-and-file workers in resisting the cycle of exploitation, economic instability, and safety risk.

ILRF Communications Director Liana Foxvog says via e-mail: “Many workers told us that participating in Accord inspections was a significant shift compared to their prior experiences of industry social audits.” For instance, labor representatives are allowed to accompany inspectors, bringing greater transparency to audits.

Now the question of accountability circles back from Rana Plaza to the corporations leading the apparel supply chain. ILRF notes that the orders that brands like H&M give supplier factories contain “design specifications that often do not take into account the cost and time required for code compliance.” In other words, the market is premised on production processes so brutal, factories simply can’t fulfill manufacturer’s orders and also uphold wage and safety standards.

ILRF argues that the next step in safety is moving toward a fairer social contract in the industry built on “reciprocity and mutual respect.” “Buyers should sign supplier agreements where prices cover the full cost of producing goods in compliance with all safety and labor regulations…without excessive workloads, overtime, or subcontracting,” says Foxvog.

Workers in Bangladesh are just beginning to envision a world of work where risk of death and abuse is not embedded in the price of the garments they sew. To achieve that, the global manufacturing chain must weave economic justice throughout the structure of its operations.

Market price points are set by capital; human-rights standards are dictated by moral consensus. Under the accord, only one side of the ethical bargain is being upheld so far—but workers are more determined than ever to hold the line.