2017 Crackdown on Labor Rights in Bangladesh and the WRC’s Response

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Laura Gutierrez and Scott Nova
Date:January 18, 2018
Re:2017 Crackdown on Labor Rights in Bangladesh and the WRC’s Response

From the end of 2016 through early 2017, the government of Bangladesh and the country’s garment manufacturers responded to protests over rock-bottom wages (31 cents per hour, the lowest among major garment exporting countries) by carrying out an unprecedented crackdown on workers and labor rights organizations. This assault on worker rights in the country’s export garment industry, the second-largest in the world, and the WRC’s response are discussed in a new memorandum for WRC affiliate schools here.

This repressive campaign, which included the jailing on false charges of dozens of labor rights advocates and the retaliatory firings of more than 1,500 workers from factories supplying major international brands, drew widespread international condemnation from labor and human rights organizations, including the WRC, and, eventually, from major brands producing in Bangladesh. Working in collaboration with nongovernmental organizations, unions, and brands, the WRC played a leading role in pressing the government and factory owners to end the crackdown in the country’s garment sector.

These efforts ultimately succeeded in securing the release of the worker leaders and withdrawal of many of the baseless criminal charges, as well as the reopening of labor organizations that had been shut-down during the crackdown. However, factory owners refused to reinstate the more than 1,500 fired workers, and brands and retailers failed to compel them to relent in this regard. As a result, remediation of the damage to the labor rights environment from the crackdown has been partial at best. The crackdown represented, therefore, a major setback to long-running efforts to improve respect for international labor rights in the Bangladesh garment industry.

Responding to this crisis was a major focus of the WRC’s work during the period of the crackdown, not only in the field in Bangladesh, but also globally. The WRC worked with a range of other civil society organizations to contact apparel brands, including the university licensees, adidas, American Eagle (Tailgate) and VF Corporation, and urge these companies to intervene. (None of the factories where workers were discriminatorily terminated or subject to false criminal complaints were suppliers of collegiate apparel. However, American Eagle was identified as a buyer of non-collegiate goods from one of the factories involved in the crackdown.)

As detailed in our update, the WRC helped secure meaningful intervention by major brands that was key to winning the release of the jailed garment worker leaders, ending the closure of NGO and union offices, and obtaining an agreement from factory owners to reinstate the workers who had been illegally fired (although, as noted, this final commitment was not honored). The WRC continues to urge apparel brands and retailers, foreign governments, and international institutions to make clear to factory owners and the Government of Bangladesh that they must follow through on their commitments to withdraw the false criminal charges still pending against garment worker leaders, reverse retaliatory firings of garment workers, end harassment of labor organizations, and cease all other violations of associational rights.

As always, please feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns.

Scott Nova
Executive Director
Worker Rights Consortium

[email protected]