Although workers were technically allowed to organize before this change, they had to obtain prior permission to do so from factory owners, who rarely granted it. Activists say they were even beaten or fired for trying to form unions.
After the factory collapse in Rana Plaza that killed 1,127 people, the Bangladesh government was quick to promise these labor reforms, as well as an increase in the country’s minimum wage, which was last raised in 2010 to $38 a month. That raise has yet to come to pass as the government is still in talks with labor groups and factory owners.
Activists warn that the ability to unionize doesn’t go far enough and call for compensation for the injured and dead, maternity benefits, and rights for domestic workers. They also argue the law was rushed through to appease foreign governments after the European Union threatened to take punitive measures and the United States cut off trade benefits, both in efforts to push the government to raise safety standards.
Pay in the garment industry is low in most countries, but according to a Center for American Progress report workers in Bangladesh earn just 14 percent of what would constitute a living wage. Wages in the industry have also been falling, and Bangladesh’s declined 2.37 percent over the past decade, a figure that would have been far worse without the minimum wage hike in 2010.
Meanwhile, 70 major retailers recently unveiled a legally binding plan to upgrade workplace safety standards in the country’s factories. Other American retailers, such as Walmart and Gap, have refused to sign the plan, instead putting forward their own with less accountability.
Any upgrade plan will have its work cut out for it, as an engineering team has found that three-fifths of the buildings inspected so far are vulnerable to collapse, while the number of inspectors in the country is far outnumbered by the number of factories that need to be inspected.