Concern is mounting over the future of the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh following arrests in Chittagong and the Ashulia area of Dhaka, and intimidation of workers and their representatives.
The Ethical Trading Initiative, which represents retailers including Asos, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Boden and Fat Face, has today withdrawn from the Dhaka International Apparel Summit set to take place this weekend in light of an “increasingly hard-line response” by the authorities and some industry members to unrest among garment workers.
At least 26 trade unionists and garment workers in Bangladesh have been jailed for participating in a strike since December last year following demands to increase the minimum wage, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign.
In addition, more than 1,600 workers have been fired and police have filed cases against 600 workers and trade union leaders, including charges of terrorism.
The Dhaka International Apparel Summit is organised by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) in collaboration with Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and will be opened by the prime minister Sheikh Hasina. It aims to open a dialogue on strategies to secure a “more sustainable apparel supply chain” from local and global perspectives.
ETI executive director Peter McAllister, who was due to speak at the event, said the organisation had no choice but to withdraw amid growing international concerns around Bangladesh’s clampdown on trade unions in the country’s garment sector, and following discussions with its member companies. ETI members C&A, H&M, Inditex and Tchibo also confirmed that they will not attend the summit.
The ETI said it has consistently sought to support the progress of the Bangladesh garment and textiles industry towards a vision of increased value of exports, but it believes this can only be based on profitable businesses that support decent employment for workers whose rights are respected.
The BGMEA has claimed the strikes were illegal under the Bangladesh Labour Law 2006 – Section 210 and 211 and have cost the affected factories some $50m (£40m) in lost production.
“As a trade body, we cannot influence legal issues or issue arbitrary notices to that effect, however we are fully supportive of the call for ensuring that the law is not misused by any party,” the association said in a statement yesterday.
It pointed out that the apparel industry in the country has increased minimum wages by 219% over the last six years and has created a Workers’ Welfare Fund, which will invest $10m (£8m) this year in workers’ insurance, education, healthcare and other welfare activities.
But the Clean Clothes Campaign said Bangladesh garment workers remain the lowest paid in the world and have not received a pay rise in over three years, despite soaring inflation in the cost of basic goods.
McAllister said he hoped the summit organisers will listen to the concerns expressed by both international retailers, the ETI and others and reach out constructively to unions. Although the organisation is pulling out of the conference, he will still visit Bangladesh to meet with partners, officials, BGMEA and key members of the diplomatic community to share concerns.
While acknowledging that workers and their representatives have obligations and responsibilities that are covered by the law, McAllister asked that all concerned with the dispute now “enter into good faith dialogue so that the success of the industry can be built on good industrial relations”.
Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry in numbers:
- $26.6bn (£21.3bn) in exports last year
- Second largest apparel exporting country in the world
- Employs 4.4m people
- 70% are women
- Contributes more than 13% to Bangladesh’s GDP
- Exports 85% of its apparel production to the European Union and the US)
Source: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)