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Press statement: Industry statements about Bangladesh crackdown belie fashion brands’ abject failure to protect their garment workers

Press statement: Industry statements about Bangladesh crackdown belie fashion brands’ abject failure to protect their garment workers

Press statement: Industry statements about Bangladesh crackdown belie fashion brands’ abject failure to protect their garment workers

For immediate release, 28 March 2024

In the wake of the Bangladesh minimum wage struggle of 2023 and the setting of another poverty wage, the government of Bangladesh cracked down hard on workers’ protests. Criminal charges, often filed by suppliers to major international brands, are now hanging over the heads of tens of thousands of workers. Yet, through recent industry statements, brands attempt to wash their hands of the responsibility for both the setting of yet another wage that leaves workers unable to put enough food on the table and of the legal threats now facing them.

In February and early March, 45 major fashion and sportswear brands, including H&M, Zara, Next, North Face (VF Corp.), and Gap, received communication from organisations within the Clean Clothes Campaign network, demanding they compel their Bangladeshi suppliers to drop these baseless criminal charges filed against workers and labour leaders during the 2023 protests calling for a higher minimum wage.

To date, only a handful of brands have met this request to respect their workers’ basic human rights, by pressuring their suppliers to take such action. The vast majority of brands have shirked responsibility by falsely claiming that their suppliers aren’t involved, defending their suppliers’ filing of criminal cases, and/or denying that the charges are being used as a tool of systematic retaliation against workers who demonstrated for higher wages, or not answering at all. Many others stated that their sole response was to involve the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) or the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) to issue a joint statement on their behalf.

Last week’s statements from AAFA and the ETI omitted that their concerns about the mass criminalisation of garment workers were in response to a push from rights groups directed at their member brands – many of which continue to take little action to compel their suppliers to drop false charges as a condition of continuing business with them. While both groups directed their calls to stop the criminalisation of workers to the Bangladesh Government, most criminal cases, at least 26, have been filed by factory owners producing for AAFA and ETI member brands, not the police who have filed at least 6. In this context, unless AAFA and ETI members require their suppliers to withdraw cases, the notes of concern ring hollow.

Filing baseless criminal cases that accuse workers generically, and without individualised evidence, of inciting vandalism and other serious crimes is a page from the well-worn playbook used by the Bangladesh Government and garment factory owners to repress freedom of association and maintain poverty wages in the industry. These charges against unnamed workers pose a threat to any worker who steps out of line, Even with the increase to a monthly wage of 12,500 BDT ($113), Bangladeshi workers earn among the lowest wages in the world, less than neighbouring Pakistan and India, and even less than Cambodia and Indonesia.

The refusal of international brands, garment manufacturers in Bangladesh, and the country’s government to meaningfully support an increase in the legal minimum wage to a sustainable level for workers and their families led to a wave of labour protests during last year’s minimum wage setting process that takes place every five years. Workers were not included in the process and were therefore left with no choice but to demonstrate on the street for their target wage of at least 23,000 BDT ($208) despite risks.

Both manufacturers and the government responded to the workers’ demand with harsh and violent repression which saw four workers killed, hundreds injured, and 40,000 at risk of false arrest under at least 35 baseless criminal charges that left dozens of workers jailed for months, including four union leaders.

Brands’ failure to protect workers’ basic rights, despite the clear threat of violent repression, constituted the industry’s tacit approval of the excessive response to these protests – a response that was predictable given the similar repression against workers that took place during the last minimum wage setting process in 2018.

In general, there is no evidence of workers being implicated in criminal conduct of the type and to the degree that factories are alleging in their recent complaints. Many workers arrested under serious charges of assault and attempted murder were not even in the vicinity of protests they are alleged to have taken part in. These cases are being brought based not on facts, or to hold individuals accountable for criminal activity, but rather, to intimidate and discourage dissent.

The four workers who died (Rasel Howlader, 26, Jalal Uddin, 40, Anjuara Khatun, 23, Imran Hossain, 32) produced for international brands including H&M, Zara, C&A, Bestseller and Walmart. Each of these brands has thus far refused to provide compensation for the families that these workers have left behind, instead pointing to the paltry compensation already received of around $4,500 as being sufficient despite falling far short of the international norms (ILO C121) used in the wake of the deadly Rana Plaza disaster. Factories failed to protect workers from the clear risk of deadly violence from police and military forces stationed in industrial areas and closed their factories without notice or assistance to workers, exposing them to serious danger.

As Bogu Gojdź, Public Outreach Coordinator from Clean Clothes Campaign said: “Brands have a chance to make up for their silence during the workers’ wage struggle to at least sure that workers will not go to jail for standing up for their right to a wage they can survive on, most are still refusing to act. Some brands have used their leverage with suppliers to ensure cases are dropped, but most act like protecting freedom of association is irrelevant. We will be publicly releasing a tracker of how they have responded, brands have until 8 April to ensure they end up on the positive side of that list”.

Thulsi Narayanasamy, Director of International Advocacy from US labour investigative organisation, Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) said: “The systematic punishment of workers for speaking out against a poverty wage cannot be separated from brands’ unwillingness to use their leverage to protect the rights of workers in their supply chains. We have gathered harrowing testimony from workers and union leaders impacted by violence and horrifying weeks in jail and all of this is connected to supply chains of international brands”.

Anna Bryher, Policy Lead from UK advocacy group Labour Behind the Label said: “The silence of the brands on these issues and their slowness to respond amounts to complicity in human rights violations. Where are the brands in making sure that suppliers drop the blanket legal charges against workers who protested against poverty pay? Repression is predictable, and it shouldn’t take rights groups having to fight for these vile legal cases to be dropped, for brands and the ETI to take notice and start work”.

ENDS

Notes for editors:

For press enquiries please contact Anna Bryher, Policy Lead at Labour Behind the Label: anna@labourbehindthelabel.org // press@labourbehindthelabel.org

Solidarity with striking garment workers at Sumithra Hasalaka, Sri Lanka!

Solidarity with striking garment workers at Sumithra Hasalaka, Sri Lanka!

Solidarity with striking garment workers at Sumithra Hasalaka, Sri Lanka!

Labour Behind the Label is standing in solidarity with striking garment workers at the Sumithra Hasalaka factory in Sri Lanka, who are protesting an unacceptable pay offer yet face union busting tactics from management. Workers are producing clothing for Asda, Dillards and Superdry.

Union leader Anton Marcus addresses workers

Around 300 members of the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union (FTZ & GSEU) at the Sumithra Hasalaka factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka, have been out on strike since Saturday 10th February 2024.

Workers were left with no choice but to take industrial action after management physically assaulted and sought to obstruct union members from meeting to discuss Sumithra’s unjust wage offer. Not only was Sumithra’s 2024 wage offer far below comparable garment factories in the area – let alone sufficient to compensate for Sumithra’s failure to increase wages at all in 2023 – but management also sought to unfairly exclude some workers from the wage increase and bonus.

Sumithra Hasalaka produces clothes for international brands including Asda, Dillard’s and Superdry. The factory is part of the Sumithra Group, which owns three other sites in Colombo, and appears to be producing for additional international brands including: Dunne’s Stores, Huckberry, J&N Herz Ltd, Marks & Spencers, Prana, and Tom Tailor. In the face of a disastrous cost of living crisis for workers, the Sumithra Group has consistently failed to increase wages and has demonstrated a pattern of hostility to independent trade union organising in its factories.

In recent days, Sumithra management has responded to workers’ lawful industrial action with physical assault, intimidation and union-busting tactics. Management has: not allowed striking workers to use company transport required to travel to the factory picket; harassed striking workers’ family members to encourage them to break the strike; tried to force members to sign letters of resignation from their union; used physical violence; made baseless reports against branch officials to the police; and most recently informed workers that their posts will be considered vacated and they will be deprived of their bonuses if they do not return to work.

Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zones & General Service Employees Union said: “Workers in Sri Lanka are struggling to survive on poverty wages after years of financial crisis and inflation. At this time they need the power of their unions to negotiate more than ever. It is unacceptable that the striking workers of Sumithra Hasalaka have been subjected to harassment, intimidation and even violence just for standing up for their rights.”

Freedom of association is a basic right. The Clean Clothes Campaign calls on Sumithra Group management to:

  • Immediately stop all repression, intimidation and union-busting tactics against FTZ & GSEU union officials and members.
  • Withdraw threats to consider striking workers’ posts vacated and to deprive them of their bonuses.
  • Declare all union resignation letters workers were coerced into signing null and void.
  • Withdraw all reports to the authorities against FTZ & GSEU branch union officials.
  • Pay workers their wages for the period of strike action in view of management provocation and harassment.
  • Return to the negotiating table with the FTZ & GSEU branch union in good faith, in order to reach a fair wage agreement.

Send a message of solidarity with Sumithra Hasalaka workers and support for their demands to ftzunionlanka@gmail.com and christie@cleanclothes.org.

Former workers of Neo Trend remain empty-handed no thanks to NEXT

Former workers of Neo Trend remain empty-handed no thanks to NEXT

Former workers of Neo Trend remain empty-handed no thanks to NEXT 

Former workers of the Neo Trend factory in Turkey remain empty-handed after 14-month-long engagement with Ethical Trading Initiative and member brand Next. This is their case.

Turkish garment factory Neo Trend Textile closed officially on 1 July 2021 due to a loss of orders in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The factory had put workers on suspended leave in Spring 2020, and workers had been told that they would be paid for this leave as per government regulations. Workers were also protected from being dismissed during this period because the Turkish government had introduced a ban on dismissals for the duration of the COVID-19 lockdown. However, after the final order for the factory’s main buyer, Next had been completed by a small group of workers towards the end of August 2020, the factory owner emptied out the factory and sold all assets. When workers returned to work at the end of the lockdown in July 2021, the 104 workers of Neo Trend found the factory closed and were left empty-handed without their owed severance, notice and other allowances.

After finding that meetings between Next and worker representatives, and later with Clean Clothes Campaign member Labour Behind the Label, did not result in any offer from Next to compensate the workers, CCC members working on the case (CCC Turkey, Labour Behind the Label) decided to report this case to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). The ETI is based in the UK and is what’s known as a multi-stakeholder initiative consisting of trade unions, NGOs and businesses, of which Next is a member. All businesses that have joined the ETI agree to adopt ETI’s Base Code, a set of common standards for labour conditions based on the International Labour Organisation conventions. Member brands commit to implementing these standards in their supply chains.

The ETI is one of several voluntary initiatives through which garment companies can commit to protecting the rights of workers who make their products, and, like most initiatives, the ETI also has a procedure through which breaches of those labour standards can be raised by members and addressed. CCC decided to report the Neo Trend case to the ETI in accordance with this procedure in July 2022 and requested the ETI member NGO Homeworkers Worldwide (HWW) initiate the process on behalf of the affected workers. Unfortunately, after a 14-month-long process, the ETI has not been able to ensure that the Neo Trend workers that produced for its member Next received their owed severance.

Bego Demir from CCC Turkey: “This case proves once more that if there are no binding laws to hold companies accountable, voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Ethical Trading Initiative cannot be the solution to achieve real remedy for workers, especially because they are financially dependent on the brands themselves. The time and efforts spent engaging with the initiative’s complaints procedure ultimately hasn’t resulted in any tangible change for the workers, who are still owed severance to this day.”

This case shows that when an unscrupulous employer cheats dismissed workers of severance pay, it is all too easy for the brands previously sourcing from that supplier to wash their hands of responsibility despite their membership in a voluntary multi-stakeholder initiative. The case highlights the limitations of such voluntary initiatives in achieving remedies for workers, as previously shown by the MSI Integrity project, and underlines once more the importance of legally binding mechanisms.

What we did and what happened

Below, we explain in more detail the steps that were taken in this case as part of Ethical Trading Initiative’s (ETI) procedure.

Original complaint filed in July 2022
The complaint filed by Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) members to the ETI’s procedure alleged that the lack of severance payments to the Neo Trends workers constituted a violation of ETI’s Base Code, specifically clause 5.1:

“Wages and benefits paid for a standard working week meet, at a minimum, national legal standards or industry benchmark standards, whichever is higher. In any event, wages should always be enough to meet basic needs and to provide some discretionary income.”

Homeworkers Worldwide (HWW) officially reported this violation to the ETI on 18 July 2022 on behalf of CCC and the affected workers. After two months, the ETI shared Next’s first response to the complaint. Next denied the allegations on the grounds that their company did not have a commercial relationship with Neo Trend in the 12 months prior to the factory closure. The company denied being the “main buyer” and listed 17 other companies that were customers “at the relevant time” – two of which are ETI members. Next said its order levels represented about 15% of the factory’s production capacity and requested the ETI to reach out to other member brands doing business with Neo Trend “in the period prior to the factory closing”.

Furthermore, Next argued that it was Neo Trend’s own decision to cease trading and that, for this reason, it had no responsibility to the workers beyond paying the invoices for their final orders. Unfortunately, international due diligence guidelines provide little direction on this matter.

CCC submitted its response the following month, explaining that the workers had testified that they were only making clothes for Next and no other brands in the last months of production. There was no production at the factory whatsoever after the final orders for Next were shipped off in August 2020. The factory closure was officially announced as soon as companies were allowed to dismiss workers again at the end of Turkey’s national lockdown in July 2021, making the 12-month period that Next referred to completely irrelevant.

ETI concludes its investigation in March 2023
ETI went on to investigate the complaint in the ensuing 4.5 months, after which HWW received the investigation report. In its report, the ETI accepted Next’s argument, even though it said it had no way to validate if Next was right in claiming they were not the main buyer in the period leading up to the factory closure. In the ETI’s opinion, Next had no further obligation to ensure that workers were not harmed by Next’s business relationship with Neo Trend ending because it had been the decision of the factory to terminate the business. ETI did recommend that Next and the other buyers it had identified should consider “the merits of exploring collective options to achieve a resolution to the issue, including considering a financial goodwill gesture to affected workers.”

In our follow-up with ETI in April 2023, we asked for more details about the evidence provided by Next that they were not the main buyer at Neo Trend and the outcome of ETI’s follow-up with the other member brands that allegedly sourced from the factory in the relevant time period. The ETI then admitted Next hadn’t provided any hard evidence to support its claim. The CCC members then asked ETI to consult with the three other ETI member brands that Next had said were customers of Neo Trend, and only one had ever sourced from them, and that was several years ago.

On the ETI’s recommendation that Next consider “a financial goodwill gesture” to the former Neo Trend workers, we learned that the company declined to make a financial contribution out of concern that this might create a precedent. ETI was not willing to require members to comply with the recommendations of the review. NEXT ultimately refused to consider the recommendation as necessary and walked away.

Final outcome in October 2023
Through Homeworkers Worldwide, CCC submitted a formal request to appeal the ETI’s decision. In accordance with their procedure, ETI appointed a committee of its Board members to consider our appeal. This committee convened on 14 September 2023 to review all the evidence that was submitted, and the conclusions were shared on 2 October 2023. While the harm to workers was not contested, the committee stated that they decided to uphold the original investigation findings and reject the appeal. We learned on 11 October that Next’s position on making a financial contribution to the affected workers remained unchanged – the company maintains that they have acted ethically and responsibly. The former workers of Neo Trend thus remain empty-handed.

Disgraceful £93 a month: Bangladesh government ignores the desperate demands of workers

Disgraceful £93 a month: Bangladesh government ignores the desperate demands of workers

Disgraceful £93 a month: Bangladesh government ignores the desperate demands of workers

On November 7, 2023, the Bangladesh Ministry of Labor proposed a new minimum wage of 12,500 taka (£93) for the country’s 4.4 million textile workers. This is far below the 23,000 taka demanded by the independent unions. According to studies, this amount would be necessary to bring those working in the textile industry above the poverty line.

The new minimum wage condemns workers to continue fighting for survival over the next five years. With such low wages, they rely on additional income to cover their basic living expenses: they have to work extra shifts beyond their normal 48-hour week, they have to take out loans or even skip meals to make ends meet. Starvation wages are also the main reason why parents sometimes feel forced to let their children work.

The highly non-transparent and biased process of setting the minimum wage in Bangladesh was accompanied by weeks of unrest. Workers across the country began protesting after the Textile Manufacturers’ Association (BGMEA) proposed raising the minimum wage to a meager 10,400 taka in October. At least three workers were killed and dozens injured during the protests after facing police violence in the form of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Legal proceedings are being initiated against many protesters, raising concerns about retaliation. The latest announcement could further fuel unrest.

Garment manufacturers in Bangladesh claim that they cannot afford a minimum wage of more than 12,500 taka. And some go so far as to say that this wage alone would drive some subcontractors out of business. However, it is the international fashion companies that dictate the purchasing prices and thus the scope for action in the industry. The prices that international fashion companies and brands pay when purchasing should enable factory owners to pay all workers at least a living wage. But the purchase prices paid in countries like Bangladesh are usually barely enough to pay the minimum wages that are below the poverty line.

Fashion brands failing to accept responsibility

Despite repeated calls by the Clean Clothes Campaign to international fashion brands to expressly support the union’s demand for a minimum wage of 23,000 taka, and to assure suppliers that they would increase purchase prices in line with the increase in labor costs, all brands, with the exception of outdoor equipment manufacturer Patagonia, refused to do this.

Many fashion companies that produce in Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex (Zara) and C&A, have long made living wage promises. But at such a crucial moment, when it really matters that brands use their huge influence to ensure that the people who make their clothes are no longer trapped in poverty, the companies have failed. Without concrete actions, only empty promises remain.

The Prime Minister has not yet formally brought the new minimum wage into force. It is now up to these fashion companies to put their words into action and ensure that workers in their supply chain in Bangladesh earn at least 23,000 taka. This would still not be a living wage, just the bare minimum that workers and their families need to make ends meet.

As was the case five years ago, the independent unions in Bangladesh have sharply criticized the formal wage setting process. They demand that the minimum wage be adjusted annually instead of every five years, as is currently the case. The unions also point out that employee representation on the wage board must be selected from the most representative union. This principle was disregarded in this and previous wage rounds; Instead, an “employee representative body” was set up that was sympathetic to the interests of employers and the government.

Finally, the independent trade unions point out that their proposal for 23,000 taka was reached on the basis of criteria set out in both the country’s labor law (Bangladesh Labor Law) and international labor standards (ILO Convention 131 on the Fixing of Minimum Wages) are required, whereas this was not the case with the employer’s proposal.

Read more: 
Background paper and campaign page of the Clean Clothes Campaign on the wage fight in Bangladesh (English)