The first of two parts. Read Part II here.
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Labor organizer Tuhin Chowdury got a call from a woman he knew only as “Lovely” in April 2013. She worked in a factory at Rana Plaza — a tall building with a shopping mall and several garment factories crammed into upper floors — and wanted his advice.
She said she had seen cracks in the building the day before. The owners had shut down the building and sent the workers home, but now they were being called back by managers who threatened to take away the day’s salary.
Mr. Chowdury decided to go for himself to advise the workers. Though they were not in a registered union, some nonetheless carried membership cards as a mark of their aspirations.
He had climbed off a bicycle rickshaw and was near the entrance when the building collapsed right before his eyes. For the next seven days, he pulled the wounded and the deceased from the rubble, and helped people get to the hospital — or to the morgue. The memories from this week still traumatize him.
The April 23, 2013, collapse of Rana Plaza, which killed more than 1,100 workers, shoved Bangladesh’s garment industry into the international spotlight. It was the deadliest accident in the global garment industry and came just four months to the day after a fire at Tazreen Fashions in Dhaka killed around 117 workers.
The conditions that led to these disasters — the fractured and ineffective oversight, the careless and cheap construction, the apathy toward workers’ safety issues — had existed for years. But perhaps because of the scale of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions incidents, they marked a seminal moment for the colossal $20 billion-a-year industry that represents 78 percent of the poor country’s exports and employs 4 million people.
In the wake of the disaster, American and European clothing brands — including Pittsburgh-based American Eagle Outfitters — joined in an effort to fix the problem through inspections, signing on to an international agreement. The government of Bangladesh, under pressure from the United States and the European Union, put into place reforms that were meant to ease restrictions on unionization.
Interviews with workers in this South Asian nation indicate that the inspections have improved safety and provide protection against large-scale disasters such as fires and building collapse. But the day-to-day lives of workers remain very difficult, with long hours, low wages, poor working conditions and aggressive pushback on attempts to unionize.
Mr. Chowdury and fellow union organizers work out of tiny, one-room offices with roll-up facades scattered across the factory district of Ashulia, where small concrete houses cluster in the shadows of hulking industrial buildings. They hear from aggrieved workers — suspended for visiting family, shorted on maternity leave, terminated without severance pay — and do what little they can to help.
“[The workers] are moving towards that goal little by little, but secretly. Everything’s secret, not open,” said Humayan Kabir, an organizer with the National Garment Workers Federation.
Organizers say unionization may be the only thing to bring sustained change to the garment industry, where workers put in long hours, still live in grinding poverty and often don’t benefit from the country’s ill-enforced labor laws. The national minimum wage is $68 per month, the lowest in the world. Some work on a per-piece basis and can take home even less.
Mr. Chowdhury and Iqbal Hossein of the Bangladesh Poshak Sromik Trade Union and Mr. Kabir are the foot soldiers in a marginal movement to unionize the garment sector, and face daunting challenges in an environment in which workers accept low wages and poor conditions because they fear losing their jobs. Their constituents include those who sew and iron clothing for American Eagle Outfitters.
Reforms passed in the wake of Rana Plaza included some to ease the creation of unions, barring factory owners from getting information about those attempting to register one. But organizers say that while the reforms have opened a small window, they still face an uphill battle in organizing workers.
Enter the Accord
Serious efforts to step up inspections started after the Rana Plaza disaster. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh went into effect last year. More than 170 apparel corporations from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia have signed on, including American Eagle. The teen retailer sources its clothing from all over the world, including at least a half-dozen factories in Bangladesh.
By signing the Accord, it has agreed to withdraw business from any factory in which inspectors find severe deficiencies and the facility to does not correct them.
Because Western retail clothing companies contract with factories to manufacture for them, there have long been problems in regulating safety and working conditions. Bangladeshi companies such as That’s It Sportswear contract with retailers, then job out orders for everything from jeans to shirts to shoes. The factories are beyond the reach of the governments of countries where the retailers are based, and Bangladesh — heavily dependent on the jobs and revenue from clothing factories — had little incentive to ride herd over manufacturers.
Since the agreement was announced, inspectors from four international engineering firms have begun work, inspecting more than 50 factories a week since February, according to the Accord’s website. The inspectors scrutinize facilities for fire and structural hazards, examining everything from the blueprints to the bones of the building with special X-rays. The signatories pay to fund the program.
Labor organizers say that inspections are a start but not enough to change conditions.
“[Inspectors] cannot see everything every day. If workers organize and if there’s a collective bargaining between workers and owners, then many problems will be solved,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, assistant executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies.
And the United States — which has pushed the Bangladeshi government to offer better protections to labor federations — seems to agree.
In June 2013, the Obama administration suspended a preferential trade arrangement that gave the country a break on tariffs on non-apparel items. (Apparel had not been part of the arrangement.) It said the country had not made enough progress in ensuring workers’ safety in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse and cited “insufficient progress by the Government of Bangladesh in affording Bangladeshi workers internationally recognized worker rights,” including their right to unionize.
That brought the specter that the European Union, which does allow apparel imports reduced tariffs, would do the same, a move that could be devastating for the Bangladeshi industry.
Shortly thereafter, Bangladesh instituted reforms meant to ease unionization. The changes barred, for example, the government from sharing lists of workers who had signed up to register unions in their workplaces because it made them vulnerable to being fired.
In the wake of the reforms, union activists said there has been some progress. The Geneva-based International Labour Organization, which is monitoring progress in the country, reported in February that 96 unions had been registered in 2013, compared with two in the two years prior.
But this represents an infinitesimally small piece of the pie. There are more than 5,000 factories in Bangladesh and the factory workers who successfully registered their unions largely came from smaller factories — where fewer workers have to sign up to get a union registered. The International Labour Organization reported that the garment sector had just 222 registered unions, and few — if any — have collective bargaining agreements.
The dangers of labor organizing
Bangladesh has a troubled labor history, with many incidents of intimidation and violence against organizers and workers reported by numerous news organizations over the last several years.
In a 2012 case that drew international attention, labor organizer Aminul Islam turned up dead. The New York Times reported he had been attempting to organize workers in Ashulia who were stitching clothes for Gap, American Eagle Outfitters and PVH — the brand that makes Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica, among others — and that there was evidence that he had been tortured. His former colleagues said the workers he was attempting to organize included those at That’s It Sportswear Ltd.
The reforms have made it easier for unions to register, activists said, but many of the tactics of intimidation and violence persist.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch issued a report in February that said workers said “managers intimidate and mistreat employees involved in setting up unions, including threatening to kill them.” Union leaders have been beaten, jailed and charged with “anti-state activities.”
Mr. Kabir said a colleague was beaten and tortured in May. The Washington, D.C.- based Solidarity Center reported in May that more than a dozen garment factory union leaders in Gazipur were physically attacked or threatened with violence. The Center, an AFL-CIO-backed group that provides training and support to local unions around the world, has documented other incidents of termination and physical violence against those in unions over the past several months.
Many workers know little about unions — except that being associated with one could endanger their employment. So they’re reluctant to take a risk on something they don’t understand and have never seen in action.
Above the legal limit
At That’s It Sportswear Ltd., a factory that significantly upgraded its safety features after a 2010 fire, workers said they’re clocking far more than the legal limit of 60 hours per week.
“If you don’t do the excessive overtime, living is difficult, because we need the money for our survival,” said one 24-year-old female worker who makes less than 50 cents an hour for overtime. She and other workers, who spoke to a reporter in late June and early July, declined to be identified because they fear they’ll be fired.
Delwar Hossain, a top official with the company that owns That’s It, acknowledged that workers were putting “some overtime” earlier this year after the factory fell behind on orders because of a political strike and worker unrest that paralyzed Ashulia in late 2013.
But he said they are no longer working illegal overtime.
Apparel companies say they are sometimes caught in the middle, because while they try to make sure workers are paid for the hours they work, if they try to police the number of hours, the factories will hide the hours over the legal limit and workers won’t be compensated for the extra time. Some, like American Eagle, do not penalize factories for excessive overtime because they’d rather get an accurate picture of workers’ hours and ensure they’re being compensated.
American Eagle has a Bangladeshi staffer who started at the beginning of 2013. He checks in frequently with factories on issues after audits. He also walks around villages to meet workers in informal settings.
Factory owners also feel the squeeze from apparel companies with tight deadlines and high volume orders. Mr. Hossain said his company, Ha-Meem Group, pays for the air freight if it misses a deadline and spent $4 million on that alone last year. The large factory group could afford to take the loss, but for smaller factories, missing a deadline can put them out of business. Labor organizers say that it’s a system that results in overwork.
American Eagle declined official comment for this story, A statement on its website says, “The ability of workers to have their voices heard is very important to our core values.”
Leave the card at home
In Ashulia, on the outskirts of Dhaka, the Post-Gazette made contact with dozens of workers. Those interviewed all asked that their names not be used for fear of workplace retaliation.
One evening in June, in a dim, concrete room where she lives, one woman and two of her colleagues at That’s It Sportswear Ltd. described their aspirations to form a union. They spent their days at the time stitching ladies’ button-up shirts for American Eagle Outfitters.
All members of the Bangladesh Poshak Sromik Trade Union, the three workers said they keep their association with the organization quiet because it could endanger their jobs and make them vulnerable to being fired for small infractions.
One worker displayed a worn membership card with his photo. “I don’t keep it [with me] because they check our pockets,” he said.
Mr. Hossain denied that workers are discouraged from organizing and said that the company has even coordinated the creation of worker safety committees under the supervision of management. Those on the committee are elected by the workers.
“If union can grow, we don’t stop it,” he said.
Mikail Shipar, Secretary of the Labour and Employment Ministry, said the government has zero tolerance for owners who threaten workers attempting to set up trade unions, and that owners can be charged with violating the country’s 2013 labor law.
But several union activists said the fear is widespread enough that most workers keep their efforts to unionize under wraps.
The workers said they held out hope that a union could bring higher wages and in turn, improve their lives.
The woman interviewed said she rises at 5 a.m. to do chores, cooks on a crude stove on a dusty patio and cares for her young daughter. She arrives at the factory before 8 a.m. and often doesn’t leave until 10 p.m. She works six days a week and sometimes seven, putting in illegal overtime that allows her to make up to $150 a month.
Her colleagues — two young men — reported working about the same number of hours. They’ve seen reductions of workers on the line and increased workload that came after the country hiked its minimum wage to $68. In the past, their targets were set at 60 pieces an hour; they’re now 80 or 90, they said. There’s little time to use the bathroom and no time for morning prayer.
With a union, they said, they could face management and demand higher wages, particularly when they’re being forced to produce more. They could fight the compulsory overtime that keeps them in the factory until well after dark and neutralize the threats of termination when they fail to keep up with the increasing work pressure.
They acknowledged they’re a long way from their goal. For them, though, it was a struggle worth pursuing.
“Not today, but tomorrow or five years later, someday, we will see the [unionization],” he said. “We are getting the energy and inspiration for organization. … With this power, we would someday be able to negotiate face to face with management.”
He clenched his fists and smiled gleefully: “I have the power!”
The first of two parts. Read Part II here.