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Dhaka Tribune

Savar tragedy could be averted if workers were unionised: HRW

Update : 26 Apr 2013, 03:35 PM

The collapse of the eight-storey factory building in Savar near Dhaka shows the urgent need to improve Bangladesh’s protections for worker health and safety, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) statement said Friday.

Suggesting reforms like a drastic overhaul of the government’s labour inspection system, HRW called upon the government to stop thwarting the right of workers to form unions.

“Given the long record of worker deaths in factories, this tragedy was predictable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. “The government, local factory owners, and the international garment industry pay workers among the world’s lowest wages, but didn’t have the decency to ensure safe conditions for the people who put clothes on the backs of people all over the world.”

Terming Bangladesh’s workplace safety inspection mechanisms “notoriously poor,” HRW said the labour ministry’s inspection department was “chronically under-resourced.”

The garment sector alone employs around 3 million workers, the international human rights group estimated.

The Rana Plaza collapse is the latest in a long list of factory building tragedies in Bangladesh, the statement continued. In April 2005, 73 garment workers died in a factory collapse in Savar. In February 2006, 18 workers were killed in a garment factory collapse in Dhaka. In June 2010, 25 people were killed in a building collapse in Dhaka. In November 2012, more than 100 workers died in a fire at a factory in Dhaka.

The latest case of the factory building collapse in Savar in the outskirts of Dhaka on Wednesday has so far claimed at least 305 lives and injured nearly two and a half thousand people with hundreds still missing. The collapse was largely blamed on breached building codes and carelessness on the part of the owners.

The HRW statement said although there are provisions for imprisonment for breaching the Labour Act; most cases of violation of workplace safety standards commonly result in monetary fines of around $13 or Tk1000 per case.

The rights group quoted local labour organisers to state that none of the five factories located in the Rana Plaza were unionised. It also said that weak enforcement of laws contributes to impunity for employers to harass and intimidate both workers and local trade unionists, curbing their rights to organise and collectively bargain.

“Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, workers could have refused to enter the building the day it collapsed,” Adams said in the statement. “This tragedy shows that the right to organize a union in Bangladesh is not just a matter of getting fair wages – it’s a matter of saving lives.”

The HRW statement also cited the alleged and unsolved torture and murder of labour rights activist Aminul Islam in April 2012 by government security forces. It said that over a dozen labour leaders were currently facing criminal charges on a variety of grounds which it thinks was “spurious.” It also condemned some other actions of the government against a number of non-government labour rights groups, saying they operate in a “pervasively hostile environment.”

The factories in the collapsed building supplied a number of global clothing retailers. HRW also slammed those international companies for failing to take responsibility to ensure uniform safety for workers throughout their supply chains.

“Global companies and consumers profit from cheap labour in Bangladesh, but do little to demand the most basic and humane conditions for those who toil on their behalf,” Adams said. “It is time for companies to say that they will take no clothes from companies that do not meet minimum standards. Ignorance and cost can no longer be an excuse for some of the biggest companies in the world.”

HRW concluded the statement by criticising the government for never punishing any of the factory owners for the deaths of workers in the past even though many lawmakers own garment factories around the country.

The Human Rights Watch released a 101-page report in October 2012 titled: “Toxic tanneries: the health repercussions of Hazaribagh leather” that documented the occupational health and safety crisis among tannery workers in Dhaka.

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