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.