March 05, 2020

At AFL-CIO, Senator Menendez Releases Report Assessing Labor Rights and Safety in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories

Report Examines Labor Rights Conditions Nearly Seven Years After Deadly Rana Plaza Building Collapse

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today released a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff report investigating the treatment of garment workers, labor rights, and factory safety in Bangladesh. At an event with AFL-CIO’s President Richard L. Trumka, Menendez discussed the fight for freedom of association and workers’ rights at home and around the world before unveiling the comprehensive report, which comes nearly seven years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed more than 1,100 Bangladeshis. The report, titled, “Seven Years After Rana Plaza, Significant Challenges Remain,” assesses the progress made in factory safety, but finds a deteriorating environment for labor rights and abuse of Ready-Made Garment (RMG) factory workers, particularly female workers.  

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“Today’s report shines a light on the struggle of workers in Bangladesh not just for safer conditions, but for dignity and respect for their rights as workers,” said Ranking Member Menendez. “Despite improvements in building safety over the past seven years, we found that the workers inside are not necessarily safer. Abuse unfortunately remains widespread, and workers’ rights are often sacrificed for the sake of meeting quotas in a relentless fashion industry. As I said in 2013, when I held my first hearing on labor rights and factory safety in Bangladesh, American consumers will simply not accept clothes stained with the blood of those who made them.”

 "This is a timely report, not just as we commemorate the seventh anniversary of Rana Plaza, but because worker rights are under attack here and around the world,” said AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka. “They’re under attack in Bangladesh. They’re under attack in Mexico, as autopart workers are forced to disaffiliate under pressure from the government and police. And they’re under attack here in the United States as the Trump administration rolls back worker rights and protections with reckless abandon." 

Commissioned by Menendez as a follow-up investigation to Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings (here and here) and report he authored after the Rana Plaza collapse, this new report finds that labor rights in Bangladesh have precipitously declined in recent years, as union organizers contend with pressure on freedoms to associate, organize, and demonstrate. Factory safety conditions have measurably improved in many RMG facilities, due to the joint efforts of internationally-led initiatives, labor unions, industry and government. However, the report also found factory owners themselves are still implicated in sexual harassment and abuse of workers, while the government of Bangladesh has failed to hold any perpetrators accountable.

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Talking about the life of a factory worker, Senator Menendez said that “I know how difficult this work can be, but it should never be fatal. The work environment should never be hostile. And the right to organize and collectively bargain should never be trampled on. All of us must live up to these values. And I truly believe Bangladesh has an opportunity to lead the way, to set that gold standard, to be that country that not only produces good products, but does so safely and ethically,” concluded Menendez, whose mother was a seamstress in the factories of northern New Jersey

Seven Years After Rana Plaza, Significant Challenges Remain” provides practical and timely recommendations for the U.S. Government, the government of Bangladesh, the Bangladesh national trade association, apparel brands, and other stakeholders to protect workers from abuse, ensure workers are empowered to defend their rights, and to safeguard and advance gains in factory safety.  

 The report includes the following key findings:

· RMG workers, especially union leaders and organizers, have been subjected to abuse and harassment, with almost no punishment for perpetrators.  Female workers, who make up the majority of the RMG workforce, are disproportionately affected by the abuse.  

·The international initiatives created after Rana Plaza—the Accord and the Alliance—significantly improved safety conditions in approximately 2,300 RMG factories. However, there are reportedly thousands of unregistered RMG factories operating in Bangladesh that are not part of a safety inspection program and likely do not meet safety standards.  

·As the last of the two international safety initiatives, the Accord, phases out and a new local safety entity takes over its operations—the Ready-Made Garment Sustainability  Council—there is concern that the government of Bangladesh and local institutions will be unable to sustain the progress made by the Accord and Alliance.  

·The Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council will be governed by a Board of Directors that includes industry representatives, brands, and trade unions.  The credibility of this institution will be determined by the balance of power on the board.  

·Despite labor reforms, the environment for union organizers and activists has deteriorated in recent years.  For example, while hundreds of trade unions were registered immediately after Rana Plaza, there has been a sharp decline in registrations since 2014.  

·Factory owners have not been held accountable for unfair labor practices, such as firing workers for their labor activism or for filing labor-related complaints.  

·Western brands have effectively used their economic leverage to improve the safety culture in factories from which they source directly.  However, the low prices they pay for garments continue to incentivize factory owners to cut corners on safety and labor rights. 

·Consumers in Western countries are increasingly concerned about the conditions under which their clothes are made.  

Key recommendations in the report include: 

·The government of Bangladesh should investigate and prosecute factory management implicated in abuse, including sexual harassment and abuse, of workers and in violating labor laws, such as illegal firings from employment. 

·The government should expeditiously register trade unions that meet administrative requirements.  

·The national trade association, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), should ensure that workers’ representatives have power equal to the BGMEA and participating brands on the Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council Board of Directors. 

·Brands must ensure high standards are maintained in their supplier factories; and, should prepare to break contracts with non-compliant suppliers.

· The United Nations (UN) should immediately launch an investigation into allegations of workers abuse—including gender-based violence.  The UN should also conduct a visit to Bangladesh focused on workers’ rights to associate, join a union, conduct union activities and be free from retaliation, such as retaliatory firings and false criminal charges.  

·The International Labour Organization (ILO) should launch a Commission of Inquiry on Bangladesh in response to alleged violations of the ILO Conventions on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining.  

· The U.S. should continue suspension of the trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences until the government of Bangladesh fully implements the 16-point labor action plan.  The U.S should revise this action plan to reflect the current challenges in the labor sector—including violations of labor rights and abuse of workers.  

· The U.S. should also consider imposing visa bans against government officials and factory owners implicated in retaliatory violence against labor organizers.  

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