After the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh in April that killed 1,132 people, the government approved a law that eased workers’ ability to form unions. But an investigation by the Wall Street Journal finds that workers are being met with violence, threats, bribery, and other forms of retaliation when they try to organize.
Activist groups say 30 or more unions have registered in garment factories in recent months, but at least four have faced retaliation such as firing or harassing unionized employees, according to labor leaders.
One example in the Journal’s investigation is the Sadia Garments Ltd. factory. “According to more than half a dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal,” authors Patrick Barta and Syed Zain Al-Mahmood write, “managers or pro-management staff pressured workers not to join the new union, sometimes violently, and offered cash and other treats to employees to oppose it.” In one episode, staff aligned with management attacked a worker trying to unionize the employees with cutting shears, according to several workers. The victim, Maksuda Begum, says she had to be rushed to the hospital because of her bleeding. In another, the factory “erupt[ed] into a pitched battle…in which pro-management workers grabbed union workers by the hair and beat them,” the article says. The officer in charge of the nearby police station confirmed that police went to the factory several times in response to reports of unrest.
Workers were intimidated in other ways, they say. Union workers who spoke to each other while working had pay docked and some were barred from the canteen or had their production targets upped significantly. Several workers say that men hired by management went to union leaders’ homes and threatened them. “[The owner] knows that if the union were to register, he would have to improve conditions and give us our rights,” said one worker. There still isn’t a union registered in the factory.
Nasir Majumder, managing director of the factory, denies that unions have faced trouble. For their part, government officials and industry leaders say they’re taking complaints of abuse seriously and that the changes in the law will expand labor rights.
Beyond the change in the country’s law in the wake of the tragedy, which did away with a requirement that workers get prior permission to organize from factory owners, the safety upgrade plan signed by 70 top retailers includes a big role for unions. Those companies have to set up health and safety committees, with of the members chosen by unions or an employee vote.
The challenge that workers face in organizing is just one unfulfilled promise since the factory collapse. The Bangladesh government had promised to raise the minimum wage, which is $38 a month and just a 14 percent of what would amount to a living wage. But that raise has still not happened. Meanwhile, the victims of the collapse itself are waiting for compensation, as none have received full payments and some have seen nothing at all.