Global union federations UNI and IndustriALL, which together represent over 70 million workers around the world, have staged demonstrations in front of Bangladesh embassies in major cities across the globe calling on the Bangladesh government to secure the dismissal of all unsubstantiated criminal cases against recently arrested trade unionists and garment workers, and to immediately release them from jail.
A protest was held at the Bangladesh embassy in Berlin on Tuesday while joined by prominent labour and human rights organisations, protesters also gathered at the Bangladesh embassy in Washington DC, on Wednesday.
When this report is being filed, they have either staged or planning to stage demonstrations at Bangladesh embassies in the following cities -- New York, Berlin, Ottawa, Paris, Madrid, Stockholm, Geneva, Rome, The Hague, London, Copenhagen, and Brussels.
"These cities are located in countries that source more than three quarters of all exports by Bangladesh’s garment sector. The protests represent growing international concern regarding Bangladesh’s deviation from international norms to respect workers’ labor rights in their most important industry," said a report on the website of the International Labour Rights Forum.
"Since December 21, 2016, at least 34 labour leaders and garment workers have been arrested and detained based on a series of falsified complaints filed by factory owners and the Bangladesh government itself. These retaliatory actions followed nonviolent protests over the country’s extremely low minimum wage," said the report.
"The situation for worker rights advocates has continued to deteriorate. As recently as February 10, nine labor leaders and workers were arrested in Chittagong while attending a training at a union office. Nearly two months after the original arrests, at least 18 individuals remain in police custody or jail," it added.
None of the fabricated criminal cases have been dropped. Several prominent union offices have been forced by police to close, and others have been closed by the unions out of fear for the security of their personnel. The continued harassment of labor activists represents a campaign to suppress workers’ freedom of association and keep garment industry wages low, as the New York Times noted in a recent editorial.
Sam Maher of Clean Clothes Campaign said, “The events of the last weeks prove beyond doubt that the government and the BGMEA have launched a full crackdown on the rights of workers to organize and demand improvements in their terrible working conditions. These actions undermine the limited progress made on safety and jeopardize any possibility of creating a sustainable garment industry in Bangladesh.”
In addition to calls on the Bangladesh government, thousands of activists have signed petitions to apparel brands including H&M, Gap, Inditex (Zara), and VF Corporation (The North Face) urging them to press their suppliers to withdraw all unsubstantiated criminal complaints and stop pressing further charges.
“This is the biggest crackdown workers have faced in the history of Bangladesh's garment industry. We need the global apparel brands that have long benefited from the hard work of Bangladeshi workers to stand by those workers now, to stop their suppliers from filing falsified charges, to ensure back wages are paid and all charges dropped, and to come together with the Bangladeshi government to put an end to poverty level wages in the garment industry,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labour Rights Forum.