Bangladesh allows garment unions
Published 13/05/2013 | 04:36
Bangladesh has agreed to allow garment workers to form trade unions without permission from factory owners, the latest response to the building collapse that killed more than 1,100 people.
The decision came a day after the government raised the minimum wage for garment workers, who are paid some of the lowest wages in the world to sew clothing bound for global retailers. Both moves are seen as a direct response to the April 24 collapse of the eight-storey building housing five garment factories.
Local and international trade unions have long campaigned for changes. Although a 2006 law technically allowed unions - and they exist in many of Bangladesh's other industries - owners of garment factories never allowed them, saying they would lead to a lack of discipline among workers.
Trade union leaders responded cautiously. "The issue is not really about making a new law or amending the old one," said Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, a group campaigning for garment workers' rights. "In the past whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beatings and harassment," she said. "The owners did not hesitate to fire such workers."
The government has cracked down on trade unions attempting to organise garment workers. In 2010 it launched an Industrial Police force to crush street protests by thousands of workers demanding better pay and working conditions. That year police arrested at least six activists on charges of instigating workers to vandalise factories. They were later freed, but some charges are still pending.
Meanwhile the government also set up a new minimum wage board that will issue recommendations for pay raises within three months.
The collapse of Rana Plaza has raised alarm about conditions in Bangladesh's powerful garment industry. Bangladesh is the third-biggest exporter of clothes in the world, after China and Italy. There are 5,000 factories in the country and 3.6 million garment workers.
But working conditions are grim, a result of government corruption, desperation for jobs, and industry indifference. Minimum wages for garment workers were last raised by 80% to 3,000 takas (£25) a month in 2010 following protests by workers. Since 2005 at least 1,800 garment workers have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh, according to research by the advocacy group International Labour Rights Forum.
The Rana Plaza owner and eight other people, including garment factory owners, have been detained in the collapse investigation. Authorities say the building owner added floors to the structure illegally and allowed the factories to install heavy equipment that the building was not designed to support.
A total of 1,127 bodies have now been recovered from the ruins of the fallen building, and rescuers have abandoned attempts to find any more.