At least 24 garment workers and labor leaders in Bangladesh remain in police custody without bail today, more than a month after being arrested during a spontaneous wave of walkouts by thousands of workers at factories in the industrial hub of Ashulia. The protests began at a factory called Windy Apparels, which makes clothes for Swedish clothing giant H&M and British retailer Tesco. I visited Ashulia in late October for the Investigative Fund and Slate, and wrote about the death of a 23-year-old seamstress at Windy Apparels, Taslima Akter, who collapsed on the factory floor after being denied sick leave for weeks. Less than two months later, the factory where she worked has become the epicenter of the country’s largest wage protests in years.
On December 11, about two dozen workers at Windy walked off the job, after factory management refused to address concerns they had been raising since Taslima’s death. Their primary demand was for an increase in the monthly minimum wage of $67 to roughly $200 — a figure closer to a living wage in a country where the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with rapidly rising inflation. Labor advocates told me that their demands also included a stop to the arbitrary abuse and firing of workers, six months of paid maternity leave, and, to prevent a recurrence of a death like Taslima’s, allowing workers who fall ill to take the paid sick leave they are guaranteed by law. As the first small group of workers walked out of the factory, many of their co-workers joined them, and as word spread in the days that followed, workers from as many as 40 other factories took to the streets in a series of wildcat strikes.
The retaliation was swift and severe, led by factory owners who are members of the powerful trade association, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the Ashulia police. Within ten days, the strike was over, 85 factories were shuttered — most of which had not been involved in the strike — and, according to a consortium of human rights groups, at least 1,500 workers were fired or forced to resign. Most of them are now having trouble finding work in Ashulia, according to labor activist Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and believe that they have been blacklisted. Owners of eight factories, including Windy Apparels, filed criminal complaints against labor leaders with the Ashulia police, accusing them of vandalism, looting, and assault — despite scant evidence of any violence during the protests. One television journalist, Nazmul Huda, was arrested for his coverage of the strike, charged with inciting the unrest and spreading false information.
International labor rights organizations have condemned the arrests as part of the government’s strategy of using arbitrary detention to halt labor organizing, describing the ongoing crackdown as a “clear step backwards” for the garment industry. Many of those detained are being held under the draconian Special Powers Act of 1974 that allows for detention without charges for up to six months. Three of the detained labor leaders are being held under cases filed in 2015 for unrelated incidents of political violence that occurred two years ago. While the new cases only list 14 people by name, the charges could cover several hundred more, according to the consortium of human rights groups, leaving open the risk of more arrests in the future. A labor lawyer told the New York Times that “when they find someone they want to put in jail, they enter that person’s name into the case.”
The factories reopened in late December, but a “really intense” security presence is everywhere, Jennifer Kuhlman from the Dhaka office of the Solidarity Center, an international affiliate of the AFL-CIO, told me: not just in Ashulia, but also in other industrial areas across the country. She said the arrests, the mass firings, and the continuing heavy surveillance by police have created a climate of fear among workers and labor organizers. Akter, from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told me by phone that the group’s Ashulia office was shut down last month and that one of her organizers, Mohamed Ibrahim, who is among those arrested, reported having been blindfolded and subjected to death threats while in police custody. She herself had to go into hiding for two weeks, she said, fearing that she too might be arrested. She said the crackdown has had a chilling effect on organizing and it’s become even harder than it was before to address workers’ concerns. The only intervention that could make a difference now, she told me, is for brands to step in and demand that their suppliers drop all charges and reinstate the fired workers.
The eight factories that filed criminal complaints, according to data compiled by Workers Rights Consortium, make clothing for dozens of global brands, including H&M, Gap Inc. (the parent company of Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta, and Old Navy), the VF Corporation (parent of North Face, Jansport, Vans, and Eagle Creek), Walmart, and Inditex (which owns Zara). Six of the eight factories are suppliers for H&M, which has a global framework agreement with the unions IndustriALL and IF Metall to support factory-level unions within its supply chains.
I asked H&M what kind of pressure they were putting on their suppliers. In an emailed response, H&M press officer Ulrika Isacsson said they were in “close dialogue with several stakeholders, including suppliers” and referred to a joint letter they sent to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh last month, along with 20 other brands, urging the government to protect workers’ rights, which gave, she said, “special attention to the legitimate representatives of the workers who were arrested.” She added, “We take a positive view on wage increases and we are prepared to pay the necessary prices.”
Scott Nova from the Workers Rights Consortium in Washington, DC, told me H&M is not acting responsibly and could be doing far more. “If global retailers threatened to halt garment orders until the unionists are released, people would be out of jail by tomorrow,” he said by email. “Instead, they languish in dank jail cells while the factory owners whose false complaints put them there keep pumping out clothes for H&M, Zara and the rest.”