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Sunday, May 22, 2011

PM should speak up for Bangladeshi workers


OTTAWA IS demonstrating its strong ties and deepening friendship with Bangladesh with an official visit this week from Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But, as those ties grow stronger, it’s time for Stephen Harper to raise the growing international concerns about the country’s harsh treatment of labour and human rights advocates, and the dangerous and unacceptable working conditions that plague the country’s garment industry.

This is especially important now, as Canada becomes more and more implicated in that country’s garment trade: Canadian imports from Bangladesh, primarily apparel and textiles, have increased dramatically in the past five years, to the point where 10 per cent of all the clothing we import comes from the South Asian country. Garments account for nearly 78 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports.

While increased Canadian trade may have created more jobs in the country’s garment sector, it has not resulted in better wages and working conditions. Bangladesh remains the lowest-wage country in the global garment industry. Workers make just pennies an hour despite working upwards of 12 hours a day sewing clothes for well-known Canadian and international brands.

Last July, anger and frustration over poverty wages finally boiled over in massive and sometimes violent worker protests in Dhaka when the government proposed a new minimum wage still well below what experts estimate is needed to meet their basic needs.

In the wake of the protests, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about torture, mistreatment, arbitrary detention and legal harassment against labour activists accused of inciting the unrest. Police executed arrest warrants against hundreds of workers and labour rights leaders, including leaders of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), a non-governmental organization which had been drawing attention to the abysmal working conditions in Bangladeshi factories. Founded and led by former garment workers, BCWS is an internationally known and well-respected advocate for workers’ rights.

Even before the protests, labour rights advocates were already facing a government crackdown on their activities. Last June, the BCWS had its official registration revoked, its bank accounts frozen, and one of its leaders detained and tortured. After the July protests, two other BCWS leaders were arrested, beaten, threatened with death and detained for a month before being released on bail. They are still facing baseless charges which could result in life in prison or the death penalty.

The government’s harsh treatment of the BCWS and other labour rights organizations and labour leaders has drawn condemnation not only from human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but also from business associations like the American Apparel and Footwear Association. In Canada, the Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Labour Congress have each called on the Canadian government to take action to protect and promote human rights in Bangladesh.

This same collection of businesses, unions and human rights organizations has also repeatedly raised concerns about working conditions in the factories that make our clothes. Poverty wages are just one of the problems Bangladeshi garment workers face. Last year, at least 49 workers died in two devastating factory fires, adding to the hundreds of workers killed in similar incidents in recent years. Excessive working hours, abusive supervisors, child labour, and a myriad of health and safety violations have been uncovered by journalists and by organizations like the BCWS.

That’s part of what makes the crackdown on labour leaders so worrisome. As the Retail Council of Canada wrote, “Civil society groups like the BCWS play an important role in meeting our industry’s goal of providing garment workers safe and equitable working conditions.” Ensuring that workers’ right to organize and speak on their own behalf is fully respected is the best way to ensure that the benefits of Canada’s increased trade are felt by the country’s poorest citizens, and that Canadian businesses and consumers aren’t being implicated by proxy in worker rights abuses.

There’s no doubt that Canada has been getting closer to Bangladesh. In February, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni made a formal visit to Ottawa, and in March Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall concluded a visit to Bangladesh to discuss closer trade and investment relationships. Bangladesh is also one of Canada’s focus countries for foreign aid, receiving more than $100 million in Canadian aid last year.

Foreign aid and diplomatic relationships are welcome, as is trade that promotes greater respect for workers’ rights.

But before this friendship goes any further, Mr. Harper, some difficult issues have to be put on the table.

First published in the Toronto Star, Canada, May 19, 2011

Kevin Thomas is the director of advocacy for the Maquila Solidarity Network, a labour and women’s rights organization based in Toronto

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