EU must put pressure on Bangladesh to improve workers' rights
Despite numerous fatal incidents in Bangladeshi factories, workers' rights have still not improved, argues Alessia Mosca.
According to reports from Bangladesh, on 2 February, a fire broke out at the Matrix Sweater Factory in Gazipur, which supplies H&M and JC Penny's, injuring four workers.
A local news report showed workers jumping out of windows. Had the fire started just one hour later, the factory would have been filled with more than 6000 workers and there would have been even more victims. This same factory had already caught fire on 29 January.
This latest incident was yet another reminder that since the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed over 1000 people in 2013, the clothing industry has made little progress in pushing Bangladeshi factories to adopt safety measures.
The Matrix factory was inspected in May 2014 by the US-based Alliance for Bangladesh worker safety. The inspection found that the factory lacked, among other deficiencies, adequate fire doors, sprinklers, fire alarms and fire hoses. Additionally, many of the factory's workers are confined to so-called 'hostels' and are often not permitted to leave, essentially forced into a status of modern slavery.
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According to a New York Times report, instead of working together, western brands have divided into two feuding camps, detracting from the overall effort which has otherwise been praised.
One group, the Bangladesh accord for fire and building safety, has more than 150 members, including many European brands such as H&M, Carrefour and Mango, as well as 14 American companies. The other group, the alliance for Bangladesh worker safety, includes 26 companies, all of them American or Canadian, among them Walmart, Gap, Target and Kohl's.
However, the reality for the millions of workers employed under inhumane conditions in Bangladeshi factories has not significantly changed since the Rana Plaza disaster.
A 2015 Human Rights Watch report cited violations including physical assault, verbal abuse - sometimes of a sexual nature - forced overtime, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full.
Despite recent labour law reforms, workers who try to form unions to address abuses face intimidation, dismissal, and physical assault at the hands of factory management or hired thugs.
According to the report, while changes to some labour laws, including provisions easing union registration processes, have simplified the registration of new unions, fewer than 10 per cent of garment factories in Bangladesh have unions.
The vast majority of garment workers are women, whose wages represent a small percentage of their male colleagues', while supervisors and managers are mostly men, in many cases leading to the sexual abuse of the workers.
A union leader at a factory in Gazipur said that when she and others tried to set up a union in January 2014, they were brutally assaulted and scores of workers were fired. She said she was beaten while pregnant, forced to work at night, and eventually fired, without receiving all the wages she was owed, all because she refused to stop unionising.
The EU, in its capacity as one of Bangladesh's major trade partners, has been actively engaging with the Bangladeshi government in raising issues related to workers' safety and the protection of women in the workplace.
Nevertheless, the implementation of such amendments to laws and local policies has not been followed up on as expected. Bangladesh benefits from the 'everything but arms arrangement', the most favourable regime set under the generalised schemes of preferences.
The EU is fully aware that cooperation through the trade system is a complex and gradual process, and therefore should make clear that those preferences should not be taken for granted.
There needs to be stronger monitoring, and Europe must demand that the Bangladeshi government be more effective in ratifying and implementing international standards, such as ILO conventions.
The paramount economic role played by the EU demands a stronger effort in safeguarding workers' rights and in bettering their conditions.
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