Unionists witness Bangladeshi worker conditions

Rana Plaza building collapse, which buried hundreds of workers under rubble.

Three Australian unionists recently returned from Bangladesh gave a reportback to a forum in Melbourne on March 5 on the conditions experienced by its clothing and textile workers.

The meeting was organised by Australia Asia Worker Links (AAWL).

Elizabeth McGrath, a member of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), told the meeting that Bangladeshi clothing workers are the lowest paid in the world. Until recently, the minimum wage in Bangladesh was only $1 a day. When this was increased, the workers did not benefit, because their rents were increased and the bosses demanded increased production.

They work in shoddy and unsafe buildings, and disasters are frequent. One example was the fire at the Tasreen factory in 2012. The building had no fire escape and there were bars on the windows.

When the fire alarm went off workers were told to stay at their desks, and were locked in. The owner later said this was “standard practice”.

Another example was the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, burying hundreds of workers under rubble. Cracking was visible before the collapse, but the workers were told if they did not go back in they would not be paid for the work they had already done.

Josh Cullinan, also a member of the NTEU, spoke about the international companies whose clothes are made in Bangladeshi factories. The US company Wal-Mart, for example, sold clothes made in the Tasreen factory, but refused to pay compensation for the workers who died in the fire.

Some international companies have signed an “accord” with international trade union federation IndustriALL. This provides for inspections of factories by independent consultants. Cullinan said the accord has so far had no meaningful impact. He said the inspections had started only the previous week, after a long delay, and there was no provision for second inspections to check whether problems which were identified have been remedied.

Manrico Moro, AAWL’s information convener and also a member of the delegation, said unions were subject to repression in Bangladesh. Unions that organise without company permission are illegal and union organisers have been murdered by security guards, the police, the army, and Islamists.

Moro attended meetings of injured workers who are claiming compensation. He also met radical anthropologists who have investigated the production chains in the garment industry. International companies often claim they don’t know in which factories their garments are produced, because they deal with the owners of these factories through intermediaries.

Moro said this was “bullshit”. Brand labels are attached in the factories, and any faults found in the garments are reported back to the factory that made them, so there is a regular communication flow between the international companies and the Bangladesh factories.

He said Australian trade unions should put pressure on the international companies that are signatories to the Accord to allow Australian unionists to inspect the factories.

He suggested that when accidents occur in Bangladeshi factories, or when union organisers are murdered, there should be protests in front of Australian shops selling the products of such factories.

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