Thousands of Bangladesh garment workers fired for demanding better wages

  • Almost 5,000 workers producing clothes for international brands were sacked for participating in protests and strikes for improved pay
  • At least one person was killed, and hundreds injured after police used excessive force against protesters
  • Almost 100 have reportedly been arrested and charged for participating in labour actions

The firing of almost 5,000 low-paid garment workers in Bangladesh in reprisal for participating in protests and strikes for higher wages is a clear violation of fundamental freedoms, global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today.

Condemning the reported dismissals by factory bosses as disturbing, CIVICUS has called for the sacked workers to be reinstated immediately and for the charges against those arrested to be dropped.

Last September, the government promised garment workers an increase in their minimum monthly wage from 8,000 taka (US$100). Workers walked out in protest on January 6 and held demonstrations demanding decent wages after rejecting this offer. During the protests, Bangladeshi police used excessive force including firing rubber bullets and tear gas, which left one worker dead and at least a hundred others injured. There have also been reports of widespread arrests.

In an attempt to contain widespread anger over police violence as well as calls for further protests, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appointed a tri-partite committee consisting of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Exporters Association (BGMEA) representatives, trade union leaders and government ministers, address the issues. Although workers rejected the committee’s findings proposing minimal increases, on January 13 they returned to work in the face of union demands to end the strike and under threat of lockouts and further police repression.

Although the tri-partite committee agreed that no action would be taken against the workers, many learned they were sacked after arriving at work to see notices bearing their names and images attached to factory gates.

“These actions are clearly a retaliation by the companies against those speaking up and is an attempt to silence their voices,” said Josef Benedict, a CIVICUS Civic Space researcher.

“The Bangladesh authorities must put to a stop to this, in accordance with their international human rights obligations and hold these companies accountable for their actions,” Benedict said. 

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that businesses must respect internationally recognised human rights, including the right to expression and peaceful assembly which are provided for under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). They should also refrain from reprisals against those exercising their civic freedoms, and protest against the business or its interests.

Bangladesh is home to some 4,500 clothing factories employing 4.1 million workers, who have been fighting for a 16,000 taka (US$200) monthly minimum wage since 2016. Many have suffered unfair dismissals, brutal police violence and fabricated criminal cases for their involvement in protests and strikes. In most cases, there has been a lack of accountability.

In early January 2017, about 20 global brands sourcing clothing manufacturing from Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, C&A, Next, and Primark, wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina supporting a wage review and expressing their concerns that union leaders and workers’ rights activists were being targeted.

Instead of sacking the workers for exercising their civic freedoms and demanding better wages, businesses should instead engage in dialogue with them and their representatives. Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh should also press these companies to reinstate these workers,” Benedict said.

It is extremely worrying to hear reports that some workers have been arrested and charged in round ups by the police for their involvement in the protests. The authorities must release these workers immediately and drop all charges against them,” he said.

The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates the space for civil society in Bangladesh as Repressed.


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