High street clothing companies with supply chains in Bangladesh have been asked to advocate for workers arrested as a result of wage protests.
In December thousands of workers in Ashulia, near the capital Dhaka, took to the street to call for an increase in the minimum wage. The area is a manufacturing hub that produces clothing for a number of Western brands.
In an open letter, addressed to “international brands sourcing from Bangladesh” and signed by 26 labour rights groups, firms were called on to contact the government of Bangladesh and ask for the release of almost a dozen union leaders.
“These detentions… reflect the lengths to which the Bangladesh government and some factory owners will go to limit advocates’ exercise of their fundamental rights,” it said.
It also asked brands, “as major buyers from Bangladesh”, to call for an end to “all forms of harassment and intimidation against labour activists’ exercise of their fundamental rights of expression and association”. The letter was sent to Gap, H&M, Next and Zara, among others.
One of the letter’s signatories, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), said at least 11 union leaders were still incarcerated and around 1,500 workers have had legal cases filed against them by authorities for looting and assaulting factory workers. CCC described the protests as “non violent”.
The campaign group also estimates between 2,000 and 3,000 factory workers were fired as a result of the protests.
“Since last month’s wage protests began in Dhaka, thousands of workers along with several grass roots worker organisations located in the region faced a series of repressive actions from their employers and the government,” it said in a statement.
Protesters were calling for a minimum wage of at least 15,000 taka a month, equivalent to around US$191, said CCC. Bangladesh has one of the world’s lowest labour rates, and apparel factory workers can currently earn around 5,300 taka a month.
In order to stop the protests from spreading, 59 factories were closed during December, CCC said.
A statement by the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety, a coalition of firms that have signed an agreement to improve worker safety in the country, said it was “deeply troubled by the detention and interrogation” of labour rights leaders.
“We call for workers and management to settle any differences at the negotiating table, peacefully and in accordance with Bangladesh law,” it said.
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