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Nearly two years after a preventable fire killed 112 garment workers in Bangladesh, the owner of the Tazreen Fashion factory is out of jail, still in business and accused of cheating and retaliating against 1,600 employees at a separate five-factory complex.
Delwar Hossain spent fewer than six months in pre-trial detention before his release on bail on August 5. He and his wife, Mahmuda Akter, had surrendered to Dhaka authorities in February, having been charged with culpable homicide 13 months after the deadly fire at Tazreen. But until now, the courts have repeatedly denied Hossain’s request to be let out on bail. (Akter must report to the station every week.)
While Hossain was in custody, his wife and close associates continued to operate Tuba Fashions and four other garment factories in a large building in Dhaka’s Badda neighborhood. Garment workers' rights advocates contend that in May he instructed Tuba managers to withhold pay from some 1,600 employees and pressure them to sign a petition supporting his release. At the time, the factory was producing soccer jerseys emblazoned with the FIFA World Cup logo, say labor organizers in close contact with the workers.
By July 9 employees were still owed two months’ compensation, it was alleged. They began to protest in front of the factory, on the streets and outside the offices of the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), only to be hosed down, teargased and shot at with rubber bullets by the police. One woman reported a miscarriage to Saydia Gulrukh, a labor advocate with the Asia Floor Wage group, which supports a regional, baseline living wage.
As the Muslim holiday of Eid approached, the unpaid workers — who were earning an average of 5,000 Taka, or $60.45, per month — became unable to afford rent and food, let alone the cost of their annual natal pilgrimage. They occupied the factory and went on a hunger strike beginning July 28, prompting the Tuba Group to pay two months’ back wages. Then, on August 7, the police arrested Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers Unity Forum, prompting further worker protests. Tuba officials eventually paid an additional month’s salary plus one month overtime — but no Eid bonus.
The Dhaka Central Jail released Delwar on August 5. The following day, according to Gulrukh, he intimidated witnesses involved in civil litigation brought by Tazreen victims. “I was physically assaulted by his gunmen, and many of us who were part of the process have been threatened,” Gulrukh said.
On August 19, in response to Tuba employees’ continued protests, Hossain hung closure notices on the doors of all five factories. The next day, as 400 workers marched to demand reopening and reinstatement, Mishu and Jesmina Jui, a student and member of the Garment Workers Solidarity Forum, were pulled from the crowd and detained for several hours by the police.
“We want immediate cancellation of his bail, and we demand that he should go to jail as Tazreen workers’ murderer,” Mishu told Al Jazeera. “We want the owner to provide the 1,600 workers, if he closes the factory, all salaries and benefits, and BGMEA should provide the 1,600 workers [new jobs] at different factories.”
Neither Hossain, through his attorney, nor the BGMEA responded to requests for comment. The BGMEA’s last press release on the Tuba Group workers, dated August 6, reported that 1,350 people had received two months’ “arrears” under the industry group’s supervision.
The Tuba workers’ campaign can be seen as an epilogue to Tazreen and another reminder of the influence of the garment export sector, which accounts for 18 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP. Industry conditions and oversight have improved only slightly since April 2013, when the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory killed nearly 1,200 and injured some 2,500 workers, mostly young women.
“That was really the impetus to get the world's attention and put enough pressure for the world to take this matter seriously,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL global union, which represents 50 million workers. “When the industry moved to Asia and expanded quickly, it was built on an unsustainable model of poor wages, dangerous working conditions and no right to a union. And this has now exploded.”
IndustriALL points to hard-won wage hikes in China and Indonesia and claims that its Bangladeshi affiliates have unionized more than 100 factories and 40,000 workers since August 2013. The union advocates country-specific minimum wages — its affiliates have demanded about $100 per month in Bangladesh, up from the current minimum of $68, and $177 in Cambodia — and global negotiations with clothing brands such as Zara, Gap and H&M. But while 180 companies, and their subcontractors by extension, have now signed on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, neither this voluntary agreement nor the Rana Plaza Arrangement, a compensation fund, demand anything of the Bangladeshi government or local business interests.
“Sixty percent of the parliament members still directly or indirectly are connected to the garment industry,” Gulrukh said. “That influence hasn’t changed. Of course, post-Rana Plaza, there hasn’t been a disaster as big, but there are smaller cases. Like in October, there was a major factory fire in which five workers were killed.”
The garment sector remains dangerous not only in Bangladesh but in other export-dependent developing countries. Over the past two months in Cambodia, hundreds of garment workers have fainted on the job, and two women employed by Phnom Penh-area contractors for the Gap, Old Navy and H&M collapsed and died in July. The deputy chief of health at the Cambodian labor ministry attributed the fainting spells to overwork, poor health, exposure to chemical substances and hysteria. According to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, in 2013 there were 147 strikes, many quite bloody, compared to fewer than three dozen in 2011.
“Why do workers faint and die in Cambodia? Why do these strikes happen? It’s basically still because the wages are so terribly low,” Raina said. “It’s all over Asia … but the workers have had enough.”
Correction: Due to conflicting reports, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Tuba factory workers were earning an average of 500 Taka per month. The story has been amended to reflectthat the average pay was 5,000 Taka.