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Members of Congress stand up for labor rights leaders in Bangladesh

Today, members of Congress led by Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Sander Levin, Bill Pascrell, and Bobby Scott called on the Government of Bangladesh to release jailed labor activists and restore workers’ rights. The letter, also signed by Reps. James P. McGovern, Mark Pocan, William Keating, Jackie Speier, Joseph Crowley and Steve Cohen, was sent to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and raises deep concerns about the criminalization of legal labor activity in the country.

The letter comes after a crackdown on labor rights in the country. At least 1,600 garment industry workers were suspended or fired for their participation in protests over the 32-cent-per-hour minimum wage. Dozens of labor rights leaders have been jailed recently.

The letter states “We regret the backsliding of progress and deplore the criminalization of activities protected under Bangladesh and international law. We call on you to provide an immediate accounting of all individuals who have been detained, a review of the many charges which have been made, and urge your intervention to assure that the responsible government entities drop all meritless and unsubstantiated charges, immediately releasing those wrongly detained.”

The letter highlights the significant reversals in labor rights that have occurred in the four years since one of the world’s worst industrial disasters occurred at the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which collapsed killing some 1,100 workers. It states:

“We are extremely concerned that the respect for labor rights in Bangladesh is moving in the wrong direction, and call upon you to personally intervene, and to clarify the government’s policies and practices in the face of the deterioration in labor rights.”

Bangladesh is a top supplier for global brands such as Wal-Mart, VF Corporation, Target, Berkshire Hathaway, Carters, Sears Holding Corporation, PVH, Gap, Inc., JC Penney Company and Kohl’s.

 

The text of the letter is included below and the full letter is available online here.

 

Dear Prime Minister Hasina:

As friends of Bangladesh and advocates of a strong U.S.-Bangladesh relationship, we write to express our serious concern regarding the arrest and detention of workers’ rights leaders in the garment industry who have been engaged in peaceful activity in many areas of Bangladesh.

We take note that the Dhaka Apparel Summit 2017 will convene February 25, which will announce the garment industry’s “massive transformation” “to ensure workplace safety” and the “well-being of workers”. However, worrisome developments over the past several months are at odds with this pronouncement by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association.

Since mid-December, Congressional offices have received briefings on an orchestrated pattern of arrests, surveillance and harassment of garment worker union members and leaders, as well as the forced closure of union offices and community education centers.

In response to largely peaceful protests calling for an increase in the minimum wage last December, factory owners responded by locking out workers, and suspending or firing at least 1,600.[1] Press reports indicate that Bangladeshi security forces arrested many labor activists, some of whom have still not been released.[2] Many of those labor activists who were arrested in Dhaka, Chittagong and even some in Ashulia had no involvement whatsoever in the Ashulia protests. It appears that these leaders have been targeted because they are involved in lawful labor rights education or union organizing.

This backsliding is also troubling because it is disrupting activities to develop a sustainable garment industry in the country. For example, dozens of USAID-funded training and education activities to promote the rule of law, industrial relations and constructive conflict resolution have already been curtailed by these recent police actions, affecting over 500 Bangladeshi participants.

We are concerned that we are witnessing a reversal of efforts to turn the corner on the country’s history of suppressing workers’ rights. The situation in Bangladesh received international attention in 2013 when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed on thousands of workers inside. The death toll reached more than 1,100 Bangladeshis.[3] Many of the workers who entered Rana Plaza on the day of the tragedy were reluctant to do so because of concerns for their safety[4], but were threatened with losing their jobs.[5]

Later in 2013, in response to Rana Plaza and to persistent violations of the right to organize, the U.S. government revoked trade preferences under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) for certain Bangladeshi goods. In the immediate aftermath of the revocation, it seemed that the Government of Bangladesh was committed to improving its respect for workers’ rights by allowing unions to register and reforming aspects of the national labor and factory safety laws.

In the past couple of years, progress on implementation of the GSP Action Plan appears to have regressed with regards to labor rights. For example, union registration approval rates have dropped from 65% to 29% between 2013 and 2015, and certain unions have been advised that their registration applications will not, as a matter of practice, receive favorable consideration, according to information received by Congress.

We regret the backsliding of progress and deplore the criminalization of activities protected under Bangladesh and international law. We call on you to provide an immediate accounting of all individuals who have been detained, a review of the many charges which have been made, and urge your intervention to assure that the responsible government entities drop all meritless and unsubstantiated charges, immediately releasing those wrongly detained.

We are extremely concerned that the respect for labor rights in Bangladesh is moving in the wrong direction, and call upon you to personally intervene, and to clarify the government’s policies and practices in the face of the deterioration in labor rights. We respectfully ask that you give full and fair consideration to our concerns and our request.

Sincerely,

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    repName Jan Schakowsky  
    helpWithFedAgencyAddress Chicago Office
    5533 N. Broadway
    Chicago, IL 60640
     
    district 9th District of Illinois  
    academyUSCitizenDate July 1, 2017  
    academyAgeDate July 1, 2017  
    academyApplicationDueDate October 20, 2017  
    repStateABBR IL  
    repDistrict 9  
    repState Illinois  
    repDistrictText 9th  
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