Today marks the fourth anniversary of Bangladesh’s tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed more than 1,000 workers and left the world aghast at the international clothing-supply chain’s lax regulations. After that disaster, Bangladesh issued labor reforms that promised to simplify the unionization process for the workers of its vast garment industry. Today, apparently, the collective-bargaining process has indeed been simplified: Demand a decent wage, get fired, go to jail, repeat.
Following the Rana Plaza tragedy, international outrage spurred new regulations to address, at least on paper, the profound lack of basic labor protections for the massive garment-industry workforce. But those changes haven’t made much of an impact for workers. Last December, hundreds of workers and labor activists clashed with owners of the Ashulia manufacturing facility outside Dhaka following a massive strike that affected some 59 different factories. Activists say that the same government that vowed to improve working conditions in 2013 is now ignoring the struggles of the estimated 1,600 people fired after that strike, along with hundreds accused of various subversive acts, including about 34 labor activists.
Their chief crime seems to be demanding decent work and a more democratic workplace after suffering years of oppression and wage theft, detailed in an extensive New York Times report. Though human-rights groups and multinational clothing brands such as H&M and Zara have publicly condemned the crackdown, labor activists continue getting systematically criminalized just for organizing to push the wage floor above $67 a month.
“The owner is always looking for their profit, generating more and more income,” argues labor leader Nomita Nath. Speaking through a translator on a recent visit to the United States to meet with labor advocates, the president of Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation tells The Nation that the poorer and more desperate workers are, the easier it is to subject them to unregulated, dangerous conditions: “[I]f they can save money from depriving us [of the] minimum wage, they will also try [to provide] less and less on safety measures, so they can save money from that too,” adds the former child factory worker, who has been striking since she was a teenager.