Forced overtime, unpaid wages, and physical assault - two years after the Rana Plaza collapse, garment workers in Bangladesh still face poor working conditions and anti-union tactics, a new HRW report reveals.
"They started beating me, slapping me on the ears and punching me, boxing me in the chest, on the sides, and I fell down, and then they started kicking me. I was screaming..." These are the words of a worker at a Dhaka-based factory, describing to Human Rights Watch (HRW) how he was beaten up after he intervened on behalf of a fellow worker who had been fired without receiving the benefits to which he was entitled.
The worker is one of 160 laborers in 44 factories across Bangladesh interviewed by the rights group for its report "'Whoever Raises Their Head, Suffers the Most: 'Workers' Rights in Bangladesh's Garment Factories."
Released on the eve of the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24, the authors of the paper criticize the Bangladeshi authorities for failing to stop what they view as an ongoing abuse of workers' rights in the country's ready-made garment sector.
Threats and assaults
Workers report a host of violations in the 78-page document, including physical assault, verbal abuse - sometimes of a sexual nature - forced overtime, denial of paid maternity leave, failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full and reprisals against union organizers.
"Despite recent labor law reforms, many workers who try to form unions to address such abuses face threats, intimidation, dismissal, and sometimes physical assault at the hands of factory management or hired third parties," said HRW.
The rights group also accused the government and managers of factories - most of which make garments for retail companies in North America, Europe, and Australia - of failing to ensure factory safety and adequately compensate survivors and victims' families of the Tazreen Fashions Fire - which claimed the lives of at least 117 people in November 2012 - and of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives and over 2,000 others were injured.
The disaster triggered an international outcry and spotlighted the safety shortcomings in the South Asian nation's garment industry, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of its export earnings and contributes to more than10 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP), employing more than four million workers - a majority of them women.
Since the disaster of Rana Plaza - an illegally built, multistoried building located outside of Dhaka - the government has taken steps to improve workplace safety and hired more inspectors.
Moreover, Western demands for better standards for those who make their clothes led to the creation of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an inspection group led by European retailers, and the North American brands-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which together are responsible for inspecting around 2,100 factories over a period of five years.
The Rana Plaza collapse claimed more than 1,100 lives. It was one its worst industrial tragedies in the country's history
Lack of accountability
However, while efforts have been made to make Bangladeshi factories safer, rights groups argue that it is not enough to focus on factory safety alone and that the government and Western retailers should do more to help investigate and prosecute unfair labor practices.
"If Bangladesh does not hold factory managers accountable who attack workers and deny the right to form unions, the government will perpetuate practices that have cost the lives of thousands of workers," said Phil Robertson, HRW's Asia deputy director.
For instance, the report makes reference to a Dhaka-based factory where female union leaders faced threats, abuse, and increased workloads after they submitted union registration forms.
"When I submitted the registration forms, local gangsters came to my house and threatened me. They said, 'If you come near to the factory we will break your hands and legs,'" one of the union leaders was quoted as saying.
Bangladesh's garment industry accounts for roughly 80 percent of Bangladesh's export earnings and employs more than four million workers - a majority of them women.
Other workers interviewed in the report spoke of the chilling effect of such actions. They claimed that following the dismissal of 100 workers from a factory in Dhaka's Gazipur district after they filed union registration papers in early 2014, the union all but stopped functioning.
As one worker explained: "The other workers still in the factory are saying to us, 'See you were trying to form a union in the factory and now you're out, so why should we want to form a union?' What we see is the government gave permission to form a union in the workplace, but then they do not back up their commitment."
Many international garment brands and retailers have company codes of conduct that require suppliers to respect the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. But as the paper pointed out, the problem in Bangladesh seem to be that many abuses and violations are simply not noticed, or are ignored, by the monitors inspecting factories by or on behalf of buyers.
"If Bangladesh wants to avoid another Rana Plaza disaster, it needs to effectively enforce its labor law and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation or dismissal," said Robertson.
The rights advocate also called on companies sourcing from Bangladesh's 4,500 garment factories to ensure that factory inspections conducted on their behalf or with their support are effective in ensuring that their supplier factories comply with the companies' codes of conduct and the Bangladesh labor law.
What about compensation?
And then there is the unresolved issue of compensation. Survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse were quoted in the report as saying that the compensation they have received until now is not sufficient to pay their medical bills and cover their loss of livelihood.
"Bangladesh needs to enforce its labor laws and ensure that garment workers enjoy the right to voice their concerns," said HRW
An independent commission has estimated that a total of $30 million needs to be paid to the survivors of Rana Plaza and the dependents of those that died, but only about $24 million had been paid or pledged as of April 20. Italian fashion retailer Benetton was the latest to announce it would pay $1.1 million into an international fund to compensate victims of the collapse.
For victims of the Tazreen fire, the situation isn't better in the absence of a sustained campaign for compensation. In November 2014, the European retailer C&A pledged a "significant amount towards full and fair compensation" for the victims of Tazreen, and the Hong-Kong-based company Li & Fung made a donation to support victims soon after the disaster.
However, several other companies have paid nothing, claiming the factory was making or storing their products without their knowledge or authorization, said the report.