Protests, Arrests in Bangladesh Over Factory Conditions
A month ago, protests began in Bangladesh over low wages at major manufacturing factories for companies like H&M and Gap. As a result, police officers in areas surrounding the capital city of Dhaka have detained at least 14 labor activists since the protests began in December.
The New York Times reported that factory managers have fired or suspended around 1,500 workers after many of them took part in the protests. The police also accused the activists of inciting vandalism and other crimes, with many factories pressing charges against employees.
"Such situations damage the industry's reputation and confidence levels, which we, together with the government and social partners, are all working so hard to bolster," Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, told The New York Times.
The minimum wage in Bangladesh is 32 cents an hour. In letters to Bangladesh's prime minister, retailers and activist groups have urged the government to protect workers, including addressing the wage issues that lead to the unrest.
In a letter, Gap urged Bangladeshi officials to ensure that no one was targeted "solely because of any association with a trade union or other group," as many fear that the government is suppressing these workers' voices or scaring other workers away from protesting. Some companies, like Gap, believe that the arrests and government action undermine the progress that has already been done to improve working conditions.
Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of retail-ready garments in the world, second to China. But, unfortunately, that productivity is due in part to unsafe work conditions, which have resulted in tragedy, like the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013, in which more than 1,100 people died.
In the wake of tragedy, companies set up the Accord to push progress and institute safety measures, like more fire escapes and comprehensive safety inspections. But, some believe that this positive movement has caused many to believe the work is finished.
"Now the spotlight is off Bangladesh," Richard Appelbaum, a labor and worker rights export at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The New York Times. "The government is responding more typically as it would have responded several years ago, if it could have."
The New York Times also reported that many garment industry workers are afraid to speak out, as they fear the government will find a reason to lock them up.
"When they find someone they want to put in jail, they enter that person's name into the case," a Dhaka lawyer told The New York Times. "The cases are creating unrest, fear."