Last year while Walmart was making a profit of $14.3 billion, most garment workers in Bangladesh, who make clothes sold by Walmart and other Western retailers, were working for the Bangladesh minimum wage of $24 a month, making them the world’s lowest paid garment workers. When a sharp rise in the global commodities market caused food prices in Bangladesh to soar, some of these workers demanded an increase the minimum wage, and some decided that they needed a union to fight for better wages.
Workers at Nassa Global Wear, which makes clothes for Walmart, JC Penney, Sears, and other Western stores, turned to the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) to help them organize a union. The owners of Nassa, ex-military officers with close ties to the government, had BCWS organizers arrested.
They were re-arrested in September and falsely accused of attempted murder, assault, and other crimes. They will go to trial soon, and if convicted could face a life sentence. Worker support organizations around the world have organized a campaign to pressure Walmart, the largest buyer of Bangladeshi produced garments, to use its influence with its suppliers to drop their charges and to allow labor rights advocates to operate freely.
The BCWS organizers arrested were Kalpona Akhter, Babut Akhter, and Aminal Islam, all three of whom are now free on bail. Their ordeal began on June when Babut Akhter and Islam were arrested after they visited a Nassa factory to talk to workers about organizing a union. They were held for 30 days, interrogated, and tortured.
In the meantime, Bangladeshi workers were demanding an increase to the minimum wage from $24 a month to $72 a month, the amount it would take to bring wages back up to subsistence level. On July 30, the government announced that it would increase the minimum wage to $43 a month.
Disappointed workers, especially those in the garment industry, took to the streets to protest the decision. Police trying to control the protest beat and arrested some demonstrators, which infuriated workers and more days of protest followed.
Protests continued through the middle of August but finally dissipated. Hoping to quell further protests, the government began arresting those it suspected of being leaders, including Kalpona Akhter, Babut Akhter, and Islam. Three of the charges against them including assault and destruction of property, were instigated by Nassa. Other garment companies and the police instigated other charges. The three were subsequently released on bail in September.
While workers considered the minimum wage inadequate, factory owners thought that it was too much. When the law became effective at the end of November, some refused to implement it, setting off further worker protests. On December 12, Bangladeshi workers again took to the streets. This time, the police responded more violently, killing four workers. Other labor leaders including Moshefu Misha of the Garment Workers Unity Forum were arrested and held without charges.
Two days later, a fire at the Ha-Meem Group garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, killed 29 workers and injured 200 others. The Jewish Daily Forward of New York liken the fire to the New York City Triangle factory fire in 1911 that killed 146 mostly Jewish immigrant workers.
In New York, the Triangle factory fire led to the unionization of the New York garment sweatshops and subsequently safer working conditions and better pay for workers. But in Bangladesh, the government and the garment manufacturers not only continue to resist unionization, they have elevated their resistance by threatening to imprison union organizers like the Akhters and Islam.
The government and garment manufacturers have taken this hard line because the low wages paid to garment workers is what makes Bangladeshi garments competitive in the world market. Retailers like Walmart encourage the drive to suppress wages and working conditions by constantly demanding lower prices from its suppliers.
That’s why organizations like Jobs with Justice are demanding that Walmart act now by telling its suppliers like Nassa that have instigated false charges against labor leaders to drop the charges. Walmart should also demand that officers guilty of torture should be held accountable and the government and employers allow labor rights groups like the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity to operate freely.