The Directorate of Labour (DoL) has refused over 450 valid applications for Trade Union (TU) registration during last three years in consultation with the industry people to keep it free from unionism.
The garment owners subsequently sacked over 250 worker leaders from their factories who submit those applications to DoL, industry sources said.
The DoL has only 149 registered TU for garments sectors despite the workers' desire and lawful premises to form TU at 5000 plus factories across the country. Of the 149 TUs, 125 are in Dhaka zone and remaining 24 are in Chittagong division.
Most of the registered trade unions in the garments sector got registration before nineties and a few 10 to 12 numbers of registration got in the last two years by getting labour court verdict after DoL refusal.
"The DoL are not giving us new registration on the ground of many unmet conditions that are difficult to meet and are not legally required. We from our federation have applied applications for about 15 new TUs during last two and half years but all of these applications have been rejected. The process had remained suspended during two years of army backed caretaker government," Nazma Akther, President of Sammilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) and a member of the second minimum wage board told The FE.
She said the trade union leaders are refraining from submitting new applications for TU by observing the trend that many of the factory leaders who submit TU applications lost their job during the period.
Babul Akther, General Secretary, Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Association ( BGIWA) said that over 250 workers who had submitted applications to get their trade union registered with the DoL have lost their job during last two and half years.
An investigation carried out by this scribe has found documents on workers who had submitted TU applications at the DoL from Pastel Apparel Ltd, Jeanse Garments, Elegant Fashion at Rampura, Elite Fashion at Tongi and Lyric Apparel Ltd at Rampura totalling about 60 worker leaders lost their jobs from factories concerned.
Ashik Hossain, Shumi Akther President and General Secretary along with their 10 co workers lost their job from Pastel Apparel one day before Eid-Ul-Azha last year, Babul Akther said adding that his organization has filed a case with the labour court in protest against the sacking.
Shahidul Islam of Bangladesh Nationalist Garments Sramik Dal alleged that Elie Fashion sacked Alamin and Jostsna Akther and threatened them of severe consequences if they talked to the media on their sacking.
Panna along with her ten co workers got sacked when information had reached their owner that they trying to form a TU at the Lyric Apparel Ltd, Babul Akther said.
When asked Md. Abdul Kayum Sarder, Additional Director of Labour said they don't have any information on mass sacking and threats being issued by the garment owners. About refusal of TU application he said workers most of the cases did not submit required supporting documents to get TU registration from the directorate.
He said ignorance on the part of labours and lack of their seriousness are largely responsible for their failure to trade unions.
He dismissed the allegation that the DoL was intentionally denying the garment workers' trade union registration. About the number of rejection he said many of the garment leaders have applied for TU registration but DoL has got no ready data or rejected applications.
Amirul Haq Amir President of National Garments Workers Federation (NGWF) said they are refraining from submitting any new TU applications as it resulted job loss by owners.
"We can not protect jobs who file applications for TUs. So we are not submitting any applications for TU, Amir said.
Md Towhidur Rahman, President Bangladesh Apparel Workers Federation (BAWF) said trade union in the volatile readymade garment sector in the country would help restore congenial atmosphere but the government is denying the rights.
Effective unionism empower garments workers and enhance their bargaining capacity and reduce chance of chaos and anarchy in any industry, he added.
When asked Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) President Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin denied the allegation that they had any piton consultation with the DoL to stop TU registration by the workers. He also rejected the truth that many workers leaders have been sacked.
"Some of the workers might have lost their jobs for their alleged involvement in wrongdoings but none have been dismissed for trying to form TUs," Mohiuddin added.
Over 250 pregnant female workers have been sacked from different garments factories including some reputed and top exporting garments factories during last three years, worker leaders alleged.
A few garment factories are paying maternity leave and related benefits but most garments factories are not complying with the guideline of the minimum wage board, Nazma Akther, President of Sammilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) and a member of the second minimum wage board said.
Md Towhidur Rahman said the poor female workers in that most cases were sacked when they got pregnant.
This scribe have got in his possession some documents from employees who were sacked by their factories after seeking maternity leave to the management.
Coast to Coast Apparels Ltd sacked its helper Reshma in February 2011, Bony Apparels Pvt Ltd sacked its folding-worker Shipli in January 2012, Outright Fashion Ltd at Mirpur sacked its Operator Salma on ninth January, 2011 when she sought maternity benefit to the management.
Tunique Apparels Ltd at Mirpur primarily denied its Operator Amena the maternity leave and benefit later it sacked her from her job when she sought maternity benefit to the management.
Nazrul Islam Khan, Secretary General of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) said one of important safety-net issues for all working women is her maternity benefit right. But, in Bangladesh the majority of the women workers are deprived of this right for various reasons such as the weakness of relevant rules/acts and lack of enforcement, negative attitude of the employers, lack of awareness among women workers about this special right, weak role of trade unions to deal the issue, lack of seriousness on the part of the government to implement and monitor the relevant laws at workplaces.
Besides, a total of 270 readymade garments factories which operate on subcontract basis do not pay salaries to its over 100,000 workers according to the minimum wage-board in Dhaka and Chittagong.
The factories are not the member of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) or Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA). Nor they have in place the other workers' safety requirements.
However, a good number of compliant factories degraded their workers after implementing the minimum wageboard award. Many of the grade 3, grade 4 and grade 5 garments workers under the previous wageboard have been degraded by one or two grades.
Factories like Raihan Apparels, SunSui Apparels, Turjo Apparels at Mirpur Area, Chowdury Fasion and Design, Unique Garments and Accessories and Standard Garments at Tejgaon area and Hi-Fi Garments, Western Fashion and Apparel at Chowduripara and Rampura areas are operating on sub-contract basis and do not pay as per the wageboard and they are not ensuring the workers safety.
When visited this correspondent found that most of the said factories are located at very congested and un-healthy spaces in the busy city areas.
When asked a manager of Raihan Apparel said the owner applied for BGMEA membership and when it gets the membership it would ensure the required standard.
He denied that they were paying wages below the minimum wage board award.
The correspondent saw documents that The Fashion Island Ltd of East Rampura degraded its 60 workers after implementing the new minimum wage-board.
Garment Workers claimed that many of the reputed and leding garments are indulging in the same practice.
The killing of Aminul a trade union leader recently revealed the fact that trade union leaders are facing repression. But this is nothing new in the readymade garments sector as the police itself filed around 85 cases against workers and trade union leaders during last three years for their alleged involvement in destructive activities and vandalism.
Police also arrested about 35 trade union leaders and about 200 workers from different places for the same reason during the period.
Currently 30 RMG trade union leaders including Garment Workers Unity Forum (GWUF) president Moshrefa Mishu are on bail.
The police filed cases against unknown 18 thousand workers at Ashulia and another 5000 workers at Tejgaon in August and October 2010 which is enough to keep them away from instigating any agitation.
The crucial role in ending the strikes was played by the trade unions, which struck a deal with the government and employers. The minimum wage was to be lifted to about $US43 a month, still well below the poverty line and just over half of what had been demanded originally.
The workers would not dare to launch any fresh agitation against the wholesale degradation of their grades at many of the compliant factories.
"We are afraid of further repression and job loss if we launch agitation at this moment". Md Towhidur Rahman, President of Bangladesh Apparel Workers Federation (BAWF) said.
Babul Akther, General Secretary, Bangladesh Garments & Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) alleged that the repression on garments workers has turned wore than at any point of the history of the sector.
Currently a clothing worker's minimum average wage per hour in Bangladesh is just 21 US cents. The comparable rates for Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India and China are 24, 35, 46, 52, 55 and 93 cents, respectively.
Workers, who have received no rise since 2006, simply cannot have their both ends met with their present pay. The inflation rate has risen sharply in recent months.
Garments account for 80 percent of Bangladesh's exports and last year the industry fetched $12 billion. In the first quarter of this year the revenue increased by 37 percent compared to same period last year.
Some of the biggest retail and clothing names in the world - such as Tesco, Gap, H&M, Wal-Mart, Marks & Spencer, Asda, Zara, Carrefour, Levi Strauss and Tommy Hilfiger - source low-cost garments from Bangladesh. Confronted by rising workers' struggles in China and elsewhere, they roam the globe looking for the cheapest labour platforms in order to maximise profits.
Fake and proxy TUs
The readymade garments sector have a total of 51 trade union federations in operation of which over 30 unions exist only in name.
These unions born recently are mostly seeking government invitation to different forum and receive regular funds from industry leaders.
The Directorate of Labour (DoL) have only 23 registered trade union federation for garments sector, DoL sources said.
Most of the federation has no representation in factory trade unions with the DoL.
Most of the workers union registered with the DoL are fake and did not submit and annual income-loss return and biennial elections results as required under law.
The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) leaders regularly promote those name-based organizations.
The BGMEA and the BKMEA regularly pay remuneration and other gifts before two eid and May Day to keep unions in good humour.
This scribe locate the office of some of such unions, but found none.
Investigations found that organisation like Textile Garments Workers Union Federation (TGWUF), Garments Workers Solidarity (GWS), Bangladesh Garments Workers Union (BGWU), Bangladesh Garments Sarmink Mukti Andolon (BGSMA), Biplobi Garments Sarmik Sanghati (BGSS) Bangladesh Shadin Garments Federation (BSGF), born during last couple of years, are receiving regular donation from the BGMEA and the BKMEA.
These federations have no offices of their own and are not or registered trade union.
When asked NAzma Akther, President of Sammilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) and a member of the second minimum wage board said these associations receive regular payments from the trade bodies despite having no activity involving the garments workers welfare and rights.
She said the heinous objective behind the formation and patronisation of such name -- based organisations is to demoralise the genuine organisations and workers' genuine demands.
Babul Akther, General Secretary of Bangladesh Garments & Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) said, among the 51 organization only 10 have their own office are registered with to DoL. These fake organisations are creating problems in for any move to ensure legal rights of the workers.
Md Towhidur Rahman said the labour ministry should take necessary action against the fake organisations that are working against the interest of the workers.
The government formed three minimum wageboards for garments sector during last 20 years where workers' representatives failed to ensure minimum expectations of their fellow owner.
The first minimum wageboard represented by Md Khorshed Alam from the workers' said, announced a minimum wage of Tk 930 in 1994, which was well bellow the monthly minimum requirement. Alam was not anyway involved in garments industry.
The second minimum wageboard announced with TK 1662 as minimum wage in 1996. The wage was too low despite the fact Nazma Akther represented the workers at the wageboard. The latest one represented by Shamsunnahar Bhuiyan also did not really represent workers' the minimum pay was fixed at Tk 3000 when the genuine need was Tk 5000.
Nazrul Islam Khan, Secretary General, Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) said the government machinery has little capacity to enforce and ensure the appropriate payment of minimum wages to garments workers.
The wage structure determined by the minimum wages board is not based on minimum daily life requirement of a worker. For that reason, there is a huge gap between income and expenditure level of a worker and that is why employees are forced to live a sub-human life, he added.
In Bangladesh, the unions operate, not to defend even the most basic interests of workers, but to ensure the competitiveness of "their" employers in the international battle for profits, Moazzem Hossain, Research Associate of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) said.
Just one day after the December 12, 2010 police killings over wage dispites, the garment unions in Bangladesh sat with Labour Minister Monnujam Sufian and employers' representatives to work out a mechanism for suppressing future struggles by workers. The minister proposed joint union-employer-government committees in every factory to "solve the problems" and the unions readily agreed, he added.
The writer is special correspondent of the FE