It is extremely difficult for garment workers in Bangladesh to organise and form trade unions. When workers went on strike for higher wages in December, at least 11 union leaders and workers’ rights advocates were detained under a wartime emergency law which authorises detention without charge for up to six months.
Employers responded to the strike by closing 59 factories and filing charges against hundreds of workers. As many as 1,500 workers were dismissed, and many of them have been blacklisted from getting other jobs in the industry.
The RMG industry accounts for more than 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports. The minimum wage has not increased since 2013 and wages in the garment industry are among the lowest in the world. Meanwhile, the cost of housing, basic commodities and medical care is spiraling.
Even nearly four years after the April 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy, which killed more than a 1,000 garment workers and injured many more, little has been done to guarantee respect for the rule of law, including national labor laws and international labor standards.
Bangladesh is eligible for trade preferences under the EU’s GSP regime. But there is a feeling special trade privileges should be reserved for those countries that respect fundamental labor rights and that Bangladesh isn’t among these.