By Brian Collett — More than 20 international brands have protested to the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over the detention of trade union leaders in the garment industry.
The companies, including H&M, Next and Primark, emphasise that a rise in the cost of living has contributed to the garment workers’ discontent and urge the government to set up a wage board for the sector.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, the Amsterdam-based NGO that campaigns for apparel workers’ conditions worldwide, and 26 labour rights groups had asked companies sourcing goods from Bangladesh to lobby for the union leaders’ release.
The IndustriALL Global Union, the international federation of unions headquartered in Geneva, has added its voice by calling for a quick end to what it calls persecution.
The swell of protest follows the arrest of at least eleven union leaders and rights activists in a swoop by government authorities.
At the same time more than 1,600 employees have been suspended and the police have brought cases against 600 workers and union leaders.
Workers in a number of Dhaka factories had gone on strike demanding a monthly minimum wage increase from $68 to $190 (£66 to £156, €64 to €180).
Most of the local offices of IndustriALL affiliates have been closed or vandalised. Many workers are said to be too scared to return to work and some have fled to the countryside to escape the police.
In more retaliatory action the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has stopped production at 59 of the factories where workers have been suspended. Two of the factory owners have filed criminal complaints against 239 workers and a third is reported to be taking similar action against up to 1,000.
IndustriALL is now in talks with the Bangladesh government, with the retailers that buy goods from the factories and with the EU.
The issues, however, are complex, requiring sensitive treatment. “This is a tense time,” said Jenny Holdcroft, IndustriALL’s assistant general secretary. “There are even terrorist threats to the garment industry.”
IndustriALL’s council for Bangladesh, which has urged the release of those in custody and the dropping of police cases against workers and union leaders, has asked the International Labour Organisation to broker a meeting of employees’ representatives and the factory owners’ group.
The threat from a prolonged dispute was outlined by IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches: “The crackdown on trade unionists and workers in the Bangladesh garment industry cannot continue.
“IndustriALL demands that the government immediately release the detained trade union leaders and activists, and drops the criminal cases against hundreds of garment workers. Government repression will not silence them or us.
“Garment workers have a fundamental right to organise and must be paid a living wage.
“The government risks losing its precious garment industry if it cannot treat its workers humanely.”
The closure of the apparel factories would be a devastating blow to the Bangladesh economy as they produce 80 per cent of the country’s exports.
Western retailers would be hit heavily too. They would be hard pressed to find replacement suppliers in other countries such as Pakistan and China, which are working flat out to meet global demand.