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Workers' rights in focus as USTR, BGMEA meet Monday

Arifur Rahaman Tuhin and Hamimur Rahman Waliullah
21 Apr 2024 22:03:19 | Update: 21 Apr 2024 22:06:18
Workers' rights in focus as USTR, BGMEA meet Monday

Aminul [not his real name], a readymade garment worker in Gazipur, has been appearing before the court regularly after two cases were filed against him during the wage hike clashes in October-November last year.

He lost his previous job due to the unrest and resulting legal action, and secured a new one. But he has been facing salary cuts and losing attendance bonuses due to his frequent absence, caused by court visits.

Skipping a court day may cause a warrant to be issued against him.

Explaining his predicament, Aminul said, “We demonstrated peacefully and our demand was logical. But the factory owner filed a case against us intentionally to halt the demonstrations. We are now facing harassment and becoming financially insolvent, even though we are not criminals.”

Like Aminul, hundreds of RMG workers’ lives turned upside down as they faced over 60 cases filed accusing 23,000 workers who held demonstrations demanding a decent wage hike last year.

On this backdrop, a delegation of the Assistant US Trade Representative (USTR) arrived in Bangladesh recently, and they are scheduled to meet with Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) on Monday.

Assistant USTR for South and Central Asia Brendan Lynch is leading the delegation, where BGMEA President SM Mannan Kochi will represent the domestic apparel industry.

Industry insiders say the key focus of this meeting will be the cases filed against protesting workers, exercising labour rights, freedom of trade union formation, and implementation of the new wage structure.

It should be noted that some of these demonstrations turned into violent clashes when police forcibly removed the protesting workers from the streets, and fired tear gas shells, rubber bullets and bullets.

Workers torched two factories and vandalized 27 more. They torched and vandalised dozens of vehicles as well.

Four workers died in the mayhem, while hundreds got injured, and more than a hundred were sent to prison.

After action from law enforcement agencies, the unrest came to control. Right groups and the western nations, especially the USA and European Union (EU), strongly condemned the way workers were treated by the authorities, and asked to withdraw all cases against these workers.

The BGMEA assured during the time that the owners will withdraw those cases, but the promise does not exempt vandals. However, legal proceedings of all such cases still continue.

Trade unions leaders blamed the factory owners using the cases as tools to silence the workers' voices, and workers are facing harassment from them.

But Kochi denied the allegation of workers harassment and told The Business Post, “My board took charge recently, and we will work on releasing those workers from the legal proceedings, but only those not involved in vandalism.”

Labour act issue

BGMEA sources said the USA administration wants to withdraw all cases against workers, and in the meeting the USTR will likely seek an assurance from the apparel sector apex body.

Besides, the USTR delegation will discuss the recent draft labour law amendment.

A BGMEA leader, on condition of anonymity, said, “The USA has many observations on the existing labour act [of Bangladesh], and the country believes that the law is not enough to ensure workers’ rights and freedom of speech.

“In the recent draft, we made significant changes as per the International Labour Organization (ILO), EU and USA’s recommendations. The draft is enough to ensure our development partners’ demands. But if they have further observations, we will attempt to reconsider.”

However, the recent draft will not ensure freedom of trade union in the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) area’s factories as they have a separate act.

The USA and the EU believed that the Bangladesh government deprived the BEPZA workers freedom to form organisations, and the development partners want the act amended.

New wage structure implementation

After the massive workers’ unrest, the government announced a new wage structure for nearly 4 million RMG workers, which was then implemented from December 1 last year. The BGMEA claimed that all factories have already implemented the new wage structure.

The USTR, however, believes that many factories are yet to implement this move, and they will discuss this particular issue, said BGMEA Vice President Abdullah Hil Rakib, adding, “We do not know who told the USTR otherwise, but we have already implemented the new wage structure.

“We will show evidence to the USTR if necessary.”

BGMEA seeks duty-free US market

The USA is the largest single export destination for Bangladesh, and the North American country occupies Bangladesh’s 10 per cent cotton market share with duty-free market access. But the USA is charging over 15 per cent duty for Bangladesh’s apparel.

The BGMEA believes that if the USA offers a duty-free market to Bangladesh for their cotton-based clothes, it will be a win-win situation for both parties.

BGMEA Senior Vice President Khandoker Rafiqul Islam said, “The USA is seeking a cotton market, and we want to increase exports to the USA. If the country offers us a duty-free market for US-cotton products, the raw materials imports from the country will increase as well.

“We previously spoke to them about the matter.”

According to the Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) on April 4, Bangladesh’s apparel exports to the USA are decreasing despite the increase in cotton imports from the USA.

Bangladesh's garment exports to the United States stood at $1.18 billion in the January-February period this year, which is 19.24 per cent year-on-year lower.

The US imported 395.69 million square metres of apparel items from Bangladesh in the same period – which is about 12.79 per cent lower than the 453.73 million square metres shipped year-on-year.

Will BGMEA consider USTR demand?

The USA is concerned about Bangladesh’s labour issue.

The country recently announced a new visa policy including the possibility of sanctions, trade penalties and visa restrictions for those who threaten, intimidate or attack union leaders, labour rights defenders and labour organisations.

Presenting the strategy in front of union members at a San Francisco, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently credited US diplomacy as having real results on labour rights, pointing as an example to Bangladeshi garment workers who faced threats until US intervention.

The Bangladesh’s embassy in Washington wrote to the commerce ministry that the visa policy could be used as political tools by the USA.

When the workers’ unrest began, which forced nearly 400 factories to announce shutdown, 78 were followed the “no work, no pay” policy under the labour law. But after the pressure of the USA and EU, the factories paid full wages to the workers.

Now the USA wants to withdraw all cases against workers and ensure freedom of speech.

A BGMEA leader, preferring to be anonymous, said seeking anonymity, “After the Bangladesh’s national polls, held on January 7, the USA policy towards us became much softer. But we will consider their proposal.”

BGMEA Vice President Rakib said, “We will review the cases and try to find out who is innocent. But we will never release workers who were involved in vandalism from cases. The court will take the final decision in accordance with the law.”