Thursday, July 09, 2020

Bangladesh Workers Face Crackdowns

Employers are avoiding paying maternity benefits and purging union members as orders plummet during Covid-19.

Bangladesh’s garment sector reels from the economic impact of Covid-19 and the shock of £2.4bn of cancelled or suspended orders inflicted on the industry by overseas fashion brands, a wave of job losses has swept across the country. Moreover, during lockdown hundreds of thousands of workers were not paid for work they had already done.

Experts warn that 1.8 million workers are likely to permanently lose their jobs. Already, activists say manufacturers are using Covid-19 as an excuse to weaken unions and purge “undesirable” workers.

“ [It] is the chance for manufacturers to handpick the workers they want to kick out of the industry – the ones with a voice, the ones who are trying to organise,” said Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity.

While firing pregnant workers is illegal, Nazma Akter, the president of the union Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), has seen a spike since brands began cancelling orders.

“So many women are not getting maternity benefits – the factories are just telling them to leave, and giving them a few days pay,” she said. “Usually we would fight these but with the pandemic, women are afraid. They don’t want to lose their jobs. Without the monitoring, the factories can do what they want,” she said. “We are seeing a real increase in gender-based violence.”

Union organisers are also being targeted, according to Babul Akhter, the president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, who reports anti-trade union activities in a third of the factories where his group operates.
“Before, when factories engaged in union busting, we could go directly to the brands and they would help,” said Akhter. “But now that the brands are cancelling orders and fighting with the suppliers, we are on our own.”
Mark Sebastian Anner, a professor of labour and employment relations at Penn State University and an expert on the Bangladeshi garment industry, warns that the combination of massive job losses and the purging of union activists could lead to worsening conditions for employees, including forced labour.
“This is a profound international crisis that has disproportionately affected the people at the bottom of the supply chain, to the extent that their very survival is at stake,” said Anner. “We’ll be seeing the repercussions for years to come.”

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