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.
The Ashulia strikers were demanding a raise in the legal minimum wage for garment workers from $67 a month to $190—though for many, that would still fall far short of a livable family wage. Workers are also pressing the government for a formal sector-wide wage review, which the government is allowed to commission up to every three years. But factory owners and the industry group BGMEA insist that their factories, which drive several billion dollars in exports a year, cannot raise their their wage floor above 32 cents an hour. While coopting local security forces to suppress labor campaigners with violence and terror, the owners have secured the support of industry-affiliated politicians or are members of the government themselves.
The political stagnation has only escalated workers’ frustration, as they remain systematically impoverished by a multinational manufacturing system that is fueled by transnational inequality, warp-speed consumption, and global mass marketing. Nath counters the industry’s perennial excuse for keeping wages ultra-low or laying off workers—that the higher wages, which H&M and other Western companies say they want to support for workers, are unsustainable. From a factory worker’s perspective, it’s profit-hoarding, not business acumen, at work.
“How can they, starting from one small factory and [make] a group of industries in a few years? So they are lying,” Nath argues. “They have money but they are shutting down the factories on their will to just make us jobless and making the propaganda, to make people believe that it’s not us, it’s the other party, just foreigners, that are doing that.”
Rana Plaza and other factory disasters in recent years have spurred some regulatory breakthroughs. International pressure drove some nationwide reforms for factory safety to prevent so-called “death trap” incidents, culminating in a legally binding international factory-safety accord. And minimum wages have been increased incrementally. But labor activists fear that as public pressure dissipates, the biggest obstacle to achieving equity for workers—suppression of their right to organize—remains as fierce as ever. The union busting speaks to an erosion of Bangladesh’s civil society under a chaotic political climate, which is also fraught with partisan warfare and panic over Islamic terrorism—but on an everyday level, it perhaps presents the greatest threat to many workers’ rights, and sometimes their lives.
The lack of basic workplace rights deeply undermines both workers’ livelihoods and their access to democracy, Nath says, particularly for rural migrant women: “Most of the women laborers come from the village areas, and they are basically illiterate…. They are so poor, they’re happy with little money. Whenever they got job opportunit[ies] in factories, they thought, ‘OK, we got a lot.’ So that’s why they are not…conscious about their rights, and the owners are taking advantage of them.”
Nath says the ability to organize is not just a parallel question to the material issues of wages and safety; without the collective power of a union and access to a collective-bargaining and grievance process, workers cannot gain genuine autonomy and hold bosses, or the international industry, accountable.
“It’s interlinked because it’s all a matter of labor and workers…. In Ashulia, we are not getting our minimum-wage hike,” Nath says. “Safety issues are also related with that. If there is no union, if we don’t raise our voice, the owner will [continue to be] lacking on safety issues.”
The right to free assembly was the focus of a global inquest by the United Nations labor authorities last year. A resulting major report by Maina Kai, special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, reveals that in both rich and poor countries, “States…often do not create an enabling environment for even the minimum exercise of those rights, disenfranchising millions of workers.”
Meanwhile, corporations keep accruing political power and wealth simultaneously with no regulatory framework that matches their global reach. When operating outside their home countries, Kai wrote: “[Domestic] laws do not extend to their actions abroad and they are not legally accountable for the vast number of rights violations that occur in multiple countries down their supply chains.” Yet for workers, who are bound by borders, “labour’s traditional tools for asserting rights—trade unions, strikes, collective bargaining and so on—have been significantly weakened across the globe. That situation has effectively allowed the global supply chain to override sovereign democracy.”
The strikers at Ashulia know that unless they secure the right to organize—the core of their sovereign power—they can’t secure better wages or safe factories either; whatever they demand, their owners will force them to choose between silence or starvation.