Photo by Andrew Biraj for Reuters
Bangladesh’s government agreed on Monday to allow the South Asian nation’s 4 million garment workers to form trade unions without having to seek permission from factory owners, a milestone victory for labor-rights campaigners who have been lobbying for widespread reforms to the industry following a devastating building collapse that killed more than 1,100 people three weeks ago. The decision came a day after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s administration announced a plan to raise the minimum wage for garment workers, who are paid as little as $38 per month—a quarter of China’s current minimum wage—to sew clothing for brands and retailers in North America and Europe.
Photo by Ismail Ferdous for Associated Press
Doubling the wages of a textile worker in Bangladesh would only add 2 pence (about 3 U.S. cents) to the cost of a T-shirt, according to Trades Union Congress, a London-based consortium of 54 affiliated unions representing 6.2 million workers across Britain. “Wages paid out to the thousands of women who work in the clothing factories are just a tiny fraction of the end price we pay at the till,” said TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady in a statement on Thursday.
Doubling the wages of a textile worker in Bangladesh would only add 3 cents to the cost of a T-shirt.
The April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building in the Dhaka suburb of Savar has also increased pressure on the Hasina’s government to address longtime safety concerns. It says it closed 18 garment factories for safety violations last week and is planning broad inspections of the country’s 5,000-plus garment facilities.
Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan, a government spokesman, said ministers will be amending the law to lift legal restrictions on forming trade unions in most industries. Union representation could have helped curb the death toll at Rana Plaza, labor activists say. Survivors from the disaster said managers from the building’s five garment factories forced workers to return to work despite safety fears after cracks emerged in the structure the day before.
“With collective-bargaining power, tragedies like Rana Plaza would not happen, since owners would not be able to force workers to work in unsafe conditions,” Amirul Haque Amin, president of Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers Federation, told the Wall Street Journal.
Others greeted the news with skepticism. Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told the paper that unionized workers don’t necessarily have the leverage to secure better conditions. “The issue is that even if you have a legal right to form a union, the question is, what is being done to protect that right once you try ‘operationalize’ it—when you try to organize a meeting or pass out pamphlets or become known as a union activist?” he said.
Unless authorities step up on enforcement, which has been notoriously lax, factory owners will be able to fire workers for such labor activities, he added.
[Via Wall Street Journal]