New interviews with Bangladeshi garment workers make clear that a climate of fear and intimidation prevails in the country’s industry, two and a half years after the Rana Plaza building collapse and the launch of the first industrial reform programs to address the pervasive fire and structural hazards in Bangladeshi garment factories.
A 100-page report, Our Voices, Our Safety: Bangladeshi Garment Workers Speak Out, published today by the International Labor Rights Forum and based on in-depth interviews with more than 70 workers, shows that workers will not be safe without a voice at work.
“Fire, electrical, and structural safety in garment factories is essential and will save lives,” said Bjorn Claeson, the author of the report. “But these renovations and repairs must be the foundation for additional reforms that address the intimidation and violence that keep workers silent, afraid to voice concerns and put forward solutions to ensure their own safety. A next phase of reforms must instill the lessons that respect for workers is as important to safety as are fire exits, that workers’ perspectives on safety are as important as the findings of building engineers. Without it workers’ lives and health will continue to be in jeopardy.”
“We set out to talk with workers about fire, electrical, and structural safety issues,” said Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, whose staff conducted most of the worker interviews for the report. “But almost all workers wanted to talk to us about more than the necessary technical repairs and renovations in their factories. This report is an attempt to do justice to their words and to tell the story of safety from the point of view of the workers we interviewed.”
The worker interviews presented in the report describe a chilling web of social relations of intimidation and violence that spans factories and apparel companies, workers’ communities, government agencies, law enforcement, and even their families. Workers report production targets and workloads so high managers prevent them from taking necessary restroom breaks, drinking water, leaving the factory at a reasonable hour, or getting leaves from work to attend to their own or their family members’ medical emergencies. They speak about wages so low they are effectively trapped in abusive conditions, and about sexual harassment and abuse for which the victims are blamed.
“Revealed in the report is a mind-blowing confluence of violence inflicted on the bodies and beings of women workers: intimidation, rape, silencing, harassment, beatings, torture, unsafe buildings, denial of breaks, dismissal of opinions, unequal pay, slave wages,” said Eve Ensler, playwright and activist. “Factory owners, huge corporate chains, retailers and consumers ourselves are all complicit in a system that denies workers their voice and full participation in their own futures and well-being.”
The report finds that the two main industrial reform programs, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, differ markedly in their attention to the social relations that ground the violence and intimidation threatening workers’ safety. Whereas the Accord enables worker organizations to engage as equals in solving safety problems, the Alliance does not provide a meaningful voice to workers or trade unions.
“A core tenant of the occupational health and safety profession is that no factory-level safety program can be effective without the genuine participation of informed, knowledgeable and active workers in identifying and correcting workplace hazards,” said Garrett D. Brown, a Certified Industrial Hygienist and Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network. “Bangladesh’s garment factories will not improve unless the women workers in them have a meaningful voice and are protected from retaliation and discrimination.”
“The next phase of safety reforms should build on the progress achieved under the Accord,” said Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum. “The goal should be an end to the reprisals against workers who make their voices heard, and a safe working environment where factory owners and managers engage with workers with mutual respect. The Bangladeshi government must register unions according to the law, and investigate and publicly denounce factory owners for using thugs to silence workers through violence and intimidation. Factory owners must adopt a zero-tolerance policy for managers who threaten or inflict violence against workers, and urge the industry associations to do the same toward their members. Apparel brands and retailers must reform their purchasing practices to cease commercial demands that contribute to the silencing of workers, committing instead to prices and delivery times in line with the cost and time of producing goods in compliance with all safety and labor regulations.”