In December 2016, the government of Bangladesh and garment manufacturers initiated the most severe crackdown on workers’ rights in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza building collapse. The campaign of repression followed a largely peaceful protest by thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers calling for higher wages, which are the lowest among major garment exporting countries. In response, at least 1,500 workers were dismissed, 38 union leaders and workers were arrested based on unsubstantiated criminal complaints, and trade union and NGO offices were closed or subject to intense harassment and interference by government authorities.
International observers strongly condemned these actions by the government and manufacturers. As reflected in a New York Times editorial, the crackdown was widely understood to be an effort by government and manufacturers to "intimidate workers and keep Bangladesh a low-wage country." Trade unions and labour and human rights organisations around the world swiftly called on brands to press the government of Bangladesh and their suppliers to take action and put an end to the crackdown. In February, global union federations UNI and Industriall, with the support of national level unions and labour rights NGOs, led a global day of action which included protests at Bangladesh Embassies in over 12 major cities around the world. Shortly after, leading apparel companies, accounting for billions of dollars in annual garment purchases from Bangladesh, pulled out as speakers and participants at a high profile annual “summit” organized by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). The brands’ decision to withdraw from the event was an unprecedented act and was symbolically very powerful, because of the supreme importance of the event to the BGMEA.
As pressure mounted around the world, the government began to release the detainees. By the eve of BGMEA “summit,” in late February, all but five were out of jail and home with their families. Two days before the “summit,” the Bangladesh Ministry of Labour and the BGMEA met with the Industriall Bangladesh Council, an umbrella body for the many of the country’s garment unions. On February 23, the parties reached an agreement aimed at resolving the crisis. The agreement provided for the release of those few still in prison, along with reinstatement for the dismissed workers, an end to harassment of unions, and the dropping of criminal charges, which remained against the workers and leaders, despite their release.
This update comes two months after the signing of the agreement. In it we outline the situation as it stood when the agreement was reached and evaluate the progress that has, and has not, been made since. As the crisis came about as a result of actions by both the Bangladesh authorities and individual employers, we have divided the update into these two parts.