Bangladesh: Stop Persecuting Unions, Garment Workers
Brands Should Make Binding Commitments to Protect Freedom of Association
(New York) – Dozens of garment workers and labor leaders are facing unfair or apparently fabricated criminal cases in Bangladesh after wage strikes in December 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. Arbitrary arrests by the Bangladesh police are growing with each passing day – nine more union organizers were arrested on February 10, taking the number of known arrests to 34.
The Bangladesh authorities should immediately release those still in detention and drop all politically motivated charges.
Global brands and donors attending the February 25, 2017 Dhaka Apparel Summit hosted by the country’s garment export association should call on the government to stop all persecution of union leaders and protect workers’ freedom of association.
“Targeting labor activists and intimidating workers instead of addressing their wage grievances tarnishes Bangladesh’s reputation and makes a mockery of government and industry claims that they are committed to protecting worker’s rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh and aid donors should press the government to stop persecuting workers and labor rights activists.”
Thousands of garment workers outside Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, participated in wage strikes between December 11 and 19. They came from an estimated 20 factories that supply global brands based in the Ashulia industrial area. According to information by local groups and official information, the vast majority were from factories that had no unions. The national union federations deny they had any role in or prior knowledge about these strikes. But the Bangladesh authorities used these strikes as a justification to arrest national union federation leaders and labor activists for “leading” and “planning” the strikes.
Targeting labor activists and intimidating workers instead of addressing their wage grievances tarnishes Bangladesh’s reputation and makes a mockery of government and industry claims that they are committed to protecting worker’s rights. Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh and aid donors should press the government to stop persecuting workers and labor rights activists.
Deputy Asia director
Workers say that strikes are often the only means for them to raise their grievances, in part because the government and local employers retaliate against union organizers and workers trying to organize. As a result, workers are unable to bargain collectively with employers and use formal channels for addressing grievances.
The workers coalesced behind a demand for a monthly minimum wage increase from 5,300 takas (US$67) to 15,000 ($187) or 16,000 ($200). In 2016, the Fair Labor Association found that the purchasing power of a Bangladesh factory worker’s average compensation was below the World Bank poverty line. Both the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA) and the government rejected a wage review. The export association closed about 60 Ashulia factories for several days, effectively locking out thousands of workers and ending the strikes.
In early January 2017, about 20 global brands sourcing from Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, C&A, Next, and Primark, wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina supporting a wage review and expressing their concerns that union leaders and worker advocates were targeted.
Rights groups have information about 10 criminal complaints filed in December 2016, implicating about 150 named workers and over 1,600 “unknown” people for crimes, including property destruction at the factories, during the strikes. Union leaders and organizers have also now been questioned or arrested in relation to older cases. These groups are aware of 34 people who were arrested, most of them union leaders. In addition, a journalist from the ETV, a local news channel, was arrested for reporting about the strikes. A news report from early January suggests the numbers are higher, stating the police had arrested at least 44 people and were identifying another 159 suspects. The police have not provided a full list of all those arrested and where they are being held.
Based on interviews with rights groups, lawyers, and workers, and police records, Human Rights Watch found the circumstances of many of the arrests following the Ashulia strikes point to politically motivated abuse of police powers to retaliate against labor organizers rather than credible allegations of crimes. Some of the police abuse tactics in the aftermath of the Ashulia strikes mirror those previously used by authorities in other related and unrelated human rights matters. These include:
- Arrests based on vague or repealed offenses from the draconian Special Powers Act, 1974;
- The use of criminal complaints against large numbers of “unknown” people allowing the police to threaten virtually anyone with arrest, to repeatedly re-arrest detainees even though they are not the named accused in the cases, and to thwart bail;
- The misuse of powers of “arrest without warrant” in violation of Bangladesh High Court directives, effectively making pretrial detention itself a form of punishment;
- Violations of procedural safeguards aimed at counteracting forced confessions through torture, or cruel, inhuman, and other degrading treatment;
- Threats by police to kill two detainees and claim they were killed in “crossfire” in a shootout with police, and a death threat to an official from the Bangladesh Independent Garments Union Federation;
- Harassment and intimidation of labor activists and workers in the name of “investigations”;
- The arrest of a journalist under the vague section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2015.
The Bangladesh authorities should stop pressing these criminal cases and hold any police officers who used forced disappearances, torture, death threats, and other abusive police practices after the Ashulia strikes accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
According to a news report, the National Revenue Board has also written to banks requesting all account-related information dating from July 1, 2009 for six union leaders and some of their spouses.
“The Bangladeshi authorities seem determined to intimidate labor leaders and workers with the constant threat of arbitrary arrests to fill up the ‘unknown’ tally of alleged troublemakers,” Robertson said. “A familiar pattern of criminal cases being used against rights activists is unfolding after the Ashulia strikes.”
Based on information from workers, local labor rights groups, and newspaper reports, some Ashulia factories have also retaliated against an estimated 1,500 workers by indiscriminately firing or suspending them.
Donors and brands sourcing from Bangladesh have the responsibility to respect and protect workers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said. They should call for an end to all harassment of labor leaders, workers, and journalists, including by ending the false criminal cases.
Brands sourcing from Bangladesh should make binding agreements with local and global unions to protect freedom of association, modeled on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an enforceable agreement between workers and brands with a dispute resolution mechanism. Voluntary commitments in brands’ codes of conduct are ineffective to counter factory retaliation against unions.
In the interim, brands should ensure their suppliers develop corrective action plans with worker representatives, including the option of reinstating fired workers and negotiating collective bargaining agreements to resolve wage disputes.
For details about the strikes and the aftermath, please see below.
The Bangladesh Garment Industry
The Bangladesh garment industry employs about 4 million workers and generates exports worth about US$25 billion. But the country’s dismal labor rights record is marked by persistent abuses including a lack of periodic wage reviews, wage theft, management thwarting unionization in factories, and poor fire and building safety. The 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured another 2,000, forced the Bangladesh government, global brands, and factories to take steps to address fire and building safety, leading to some improvements.
In 2016, the Fair Labor Association found that for the factories it assessed in Bangladesh, the purchasing power of average compensation fell below the World Bank poverty line compared with other big apparel producers like China and Vietnam, where average compensation is 2.5 times the poverty line.
In the aftermath of the Ashulia strikes, Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with 32 workers, residents, and passersby in Ashulia. Human Rights Watch also interviewed union leaders, rights groups, and legal experts in Bangladesh, and reviewed police and other official documents and news reports. The interviews were conducted with informed consent and all names have been withheld to protect them.
The Ashulia Strikes
A wildcat strike started in Windy Apparel Ltd., which has no union, on December 11, 2016. Between December 11 and 19, workers from other factories joined the strike for various reasons. For example, in addition to seeking better wages, workers from one factory with about 400 workers told Human Rights Watch that they joined the strikes because they were also aggrieved by sexual threats and abusive taunts by a supervisor and the recent firing of a worker who was trying to form a union.
Some workers from other factories told Human Rights Watch they joined the strikes when their factory owners or managers promised a wage increase if other factories did the same. In some instances, workers said supervisors and other mid-level factory management encouraged them to strike because they believed they would also receive a pay increase if workers’ demands were successful.
During this period, high-level government officials convened multiple rounds of discussions with some factory owners and national federation union leaders about the strikes. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA) refused workers’ demands for a wage review, contending that the government could not order one until 2018, that is, until five years after the previous wage review, and the government agreed. However, labor law experts told Human Rights Watch that the government can order a wage review at any time under section 140A of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006.
Labor rights groups told Human Rights Watch that in these meetings government officials ordered union federation leaders to compel workers to return to factories, disregarding the union leaders’ explanations that they had no power over workers in Ashulia’s striking factories because a vast majority of them have no unions. The strikes were ended by the December 20 factory shut down by the BGMEA.
Meanwhile, Donglian Fashion (BD) Ltd., one of the few Ashulia factories that has a registered union and whose workers did not join the spontaneous strike, resolved the wage dispute in January through a collective bargaining process that had started in November. The final agreement lays down the percentage of annual wage increase for workers, rules governing attendance bonus, and a grievance redress procedure.
Disappearance and “Arrest” Technique
Based on information from lawyers, labor rights groups, and other credible sources, many union leaders vanished. More than 24 hours later, police brought them before a court; at no times before did the police acknowledge or provide any information about their formal arrest or legal detention:
- Shoumitro Kumar Das, president, Garment Sromik Front Regional Committee;
- Ahmed Jibon, general secretary, Garment Sromik Front;
- Al Kamran, president, Shwadhin Bangla Garment Sromik Federation Savar-Ashulia-Dhamrai Regional Committee;
- Shakil Ahmed, general secretary, Shwadhin Bangla Garment Sromik Federation Regional Committee;
- Shamim Khan, president, Bangladesh Trinomul Garment Sromik-Kormochari Federation;
- Mizanur Rahman, Textile Workers Federation;
- Mohammed Ibrahim, coordinator, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity;
- Rafiqul Islam Sujon, president, Garment and Industry Sromik Federation;
- Jahangir, president, Designer Jeans Ltd. factory union;
- Nazmul Huda, journalist.
Following a meeting with the industrial police on the morning of December 21 in an Ashulia theme park, seven union leaders vanished. Their phones were switched off and calls from relatives and colleagues to various police departments yielded no information about them. Plainclothes policemen went to Jahangir’s home late that night and took him away, promising his wife that he would return in 30 minutes. He did not return and was unreachable. Police did not inform his family about his whereabouts.
On the night of December 22, the police produced the eight labor leaders in court. Because contact with those in detention is limited, details of their detention conditions are patchy. Lawyers said at least four of them – Kamran, Ahmed, Rahman, and Ibrahim – reported being blindfolded and detained in an undisclosed location by the detective branch; one was beaten, and another was threatened with being “cross-fired” (being killed in a staged exchange of fire with the police).
Before the detainees had access to lawyers or were produced in court, the police recorded in Complaint No. 30/524, filed on December 22, that the eight union leaders had “confessed” to instigating the strike by conducting secret meetings, distributing leaflets, and providing economic support.
On December 23, police called Huda, the journalist, invited him to a news conference, and when he arrived, forced him into a police vehicle, beat him, and drove him around Dhaka until around 4 a.m., threatening him with a “cross-fire” killing. He was produced in court the following day. Ahmed Jibon also vanished following a detective branch police phone call asking him to meet with them on the morning of December 27, and was untraceable until he was produced in court the following morning.
Use of the Repressive Special Powers Act
The draconian Special Powers Act violates the accused’s rights to due process and other international human rights standards. A leading criminal law expert told Human Rights Watch that these cases are the first time these offenses have been used against garment workers and union organizers. He also said that these are usually triable by a special tribunal, making it harder for regular criminal courts to grant pretrial bail.
The police accused some labor leaders of “sabotage” – an offense so vaguely defined that it can be abused to criminalize any exercise of workers’ freedom of association. For example, a person commits the offense of sabotage if he or she does any act “with intent to impair the efficiency or impede the working of, or to cause damage to…[a] factory.”
The police have similarly filed spurious criminal complaints against nine labor leaders for committing “prejudicial acts,” an offense that has been repealed. The Shomajtontrik Sromik Front, a national union federation, challenged the use of the repealed offense in January 2017 in the Bangladesh High Court, which ruled it unlawful and ordered the magistrate’s court to release a leader of the union, Ahmed Jibon, on bail.
According to a leading criminal law expert who spoke with Human Rights Watch, the police violated Bangladesh Supreme Court rulings in their application of the Special Powers Act, where the court clearly held that even where there is damage to private property, the Special Powers Act offenses cannot be used since it does not constitute a security related offense against the state. Rights groups have repeatedly called for full repeal of the act.
Abusing the Threat of Arrest and Re-Arrest
The police intimidated labor leaders and workers by registering criminal complaints against “unknown” persons, allowing them to misuse the threat of arrest against anyone. Human Rights Watch has documented previous and routine use of this technique. The open-ended complaints against over 1,600 “unknown” people for committing crimes during the Ashulia strikes have been abused to implicate union leaders, some of whom have been arrested in as many as nine cases each. Most recently, the police rearrested Jibon, soon after a magistrate’s court released him on bail.
Police arrested three more labor leaders – Asadur Zaman, Golam Arif, and Ronju – from the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation (BIGUF) soon after the Ashulia strikes and implicated them in old cases from January 2015 unrelated to the strikes. These were filed in Gazipur during the 2015 nationwide blockade called by a 20-party alliance led by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. None of them had been accused or previously questioned in relation to those cases. Nine more labor organizers were similarly arrested on February 10, in relation to case from August 2016, accused of obstructing police work, and released on bail on February 13.
Trumped Up, Vague Allegations
Nine of the complaints were filed by factories against some known and many “unknown” persons, each alleging a variety of crimes.
A leading criminal law expert who has reviewed these complaints told Human Rights Watch that most allegations are vague and appeared as if the “FIRs [police first information reports] were prepared at the instruction of the same person. Police just copied them by changing the names.”
Where allegations specifically detailed property damage, such as destruction of factory doors, windows, and machinery, there is no corroborating information. None of the workers Human Rights Watch was able to interview in a few of these factories and who had resumed work inside these factories said they had seen any freshly replaced machinery or fixtures, or recently damaged machinery or fixtures awaiting repairs. Local residents said they did not witness any looting or violence. On the contrary, they said the areas were teeming with police, who had put up barricades.
In one case, the factory alleged in its complaint that workers made an “irrational demand” on December 14, 2016, then disrupted work by going on strike. Workers told Human Rights Watch that a fire alarm went off that day, and management told workers to leave. Some who tried to return were told they did not need to. Workers also said that mid-level factory management and supervisors had encouraged them to leave the factory and join the strike – telling the workers that if they joined the strikes, the managers’ salaries would increase too.
The same factory manager alleged in his complaint that some workers turned violent at about 8:45 a.m. on December 20, allegedly breaking machinery and damaging glass doors and windows worth 1 million takas (US$12,492). However, workers told Human Rights Watch that on the evening of December 19, supervisors had instructed at least some of the workers to arrive late the following morning. By the time these workers arrived, the gates were closed and they were told the factory was indefinitely closed.
In another case, a factory official filed a complaint alleging that at around 8:45 a.m. on December 19, 15 named workers and 40 to 50 unknown people damaged machinery, doors, and windows worth 300,000 takas (roughly US$3,770) and looted garments worth 200,000 takas (roughly $2,515) after beating and threatening factory officials. They also alleged that the workers they named colluded with 40 to 50 unknown others and rioted on the street outside the factory, destroying vehicles. They said this forced the factory to close down for a few days.
Factory workers told Human Rights Watch that on December 19, officials announced through loudspeakers that the factory was closing and ordered workers to go home. The workers complied and left and said they saw no evidence of violence on the way out. And despite allegations of extensive damage, the workers who resumed work inside the factory after it re-opened said they did not see any freshly repaired or installed fixtures, or damaged fixtures, or hear about any such damages.
Police Harassment of Labor Activists and Death Threats to BIGUF Leader
Starting in mid-December, the Solidarity Center, which works closely with workers and unions, documented instances in which 14 national union federations were either forced by police to shut their offices in Ashulia, Gazipur, and Chittagong, or closed them because of police harassment.
According to a written incident report by the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation (BIGUF) on January 20, two plainclothes policemen interrupted an ILO-sponsored health and safety training program organized in BIGUF’s Gazipur office, demanding to meet with two BIGUF organizers. More uniformed police officers entered the premises, gathered all BIGUF staff and program participants in the seminar room, noted down their personal details, and warned that they should not participate in BIGUF’s activities. According to BIGUF, one of the policemen also threatened Rashedul Alam Raju, the union federation vice-president, who was not in the room, saying that he would be caught and drowned in drain water.
Human Rights Watch has reported on a recurring pattern of such harassment in the past. In 2010, the police detained and harassed activists from the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS). Aminul Islam, one of the detainees, told other rights groups that the police had tortured and threatened to kill him. In April 2012, Aminul vanished and was subsequently found murdered with torture marks under circumstances that raise concerns of involvement by Bangladeshi security forces. Till today, the police investigation has failed to find suspects, and officials have not responded to a call by international rights groups and aid donors for an independent investigation.
Retaliatory Firing, Black-Listing of Factory Workers
According to information from rights groups and news reports, factory managers dismissed or suspended an estimated 1,500 workers in Ashulia after the strikes. Some workers told Human Rights Watch that their factory managers promised to send them a show-cause notice back in their homes in the village but had received no further information. Other workers said that factory officials or supervisors told them on the phone that they should not come to the factory because they would be arrested, without offering any further explanation. A third group said that factory officials gave them a show-cause notice, in standard format, with seven days to respond to allegations that they participated in or instigated violent strikes. Human Rights Watch has seen some of these notices. None was tailored to an individual worker, specifying clearly how they were implicated in the strikes, but included broad, vague allegations addressed to a group of workers.
These retaliatory dismissals and suspensions appear indiscriminate, Human Rights Watch said. Factory management also opportunistically dismissed workers perceived as “unproductive” or “trouble-makers.” A pregnant worker said that she was dismissed even though she did not participate in any strikes because of her pregnancy. A male worker who was on sick leave said he was dismissed, and a female worker said she believed she was targeted because she had complained of sexual harassment at the workplace.
One worker who was fired said he was finding it impossible to find employment in other factories:
My life has been seriously affected…I tried for a job in several factories after the incident. In January, I joined Envoy Group and worked for about half an hour. But an official came and said he cannot appoint me, without giving any explanation. Later a security guard told me our photos were emailed to other factories and that’s how they identified me. I am thinking of leaving the Ashulia area, but I don’t know if I will get a job in other areas. I have to pay my bills here – house rent and other things before I leave.
Government information from August 2016 shows that only 23 factories in Ashulia had registered unions. Human Rights Watch documented numerous examples of factory officials thwarting union formation in Ashulia’s factories. Union busting has been an unchecked labor rights risk in global apparel brands’ supply chains in Bangladesh.
One union federation leader said that “participation committees” – employer-worker committees under the Bangladesh Labour Act – had begun to subtly replace factory unions. A few workers from various Ashulia factories said their factory managers did not allow “unions” but allowed workers to vote for representatives to these committees. The Solidarity Center told Human Rights Watch that participation committees either exist only on paper or are dominated by employers and do not represent worker interests.
A union office holder from a factory said: “Our factory union got the registration three months ago. When the owner became aware of this, he terminated 74 workers including the union president…Now I got dismissed along with 150 others, though I had no role in the recent protest.” In another case, workers had attempted to form a union in their factory three times, only to face factory retaliation.