On December 28, 2014, and February 3, 2015, a major Bangladesh employer the Azim Group, with 28,000 workers in 25 factories, signed agreements with two factory-level unions. The agreements ended a four-month campaign. that began when Azim Grup management orchestrated violent assaults against the unions’ young, mostly female leaders.
Workers United-SEIU became involved in the campaign in Bangladesh when we were informed that factory-level union leaders of our sister union, Bangladesh Independent Garment-workers Union Federation (BIGUF) were viciously attacked in two separate incidents at two factories owned by the Azim Group.
In the first case, at Global Trousers Ltd., the Global Trousers Ltd. Workers Union president Mira was attacked by paid thugs using iron bars, and was knocked unconscious and left bleeding from a six-inch gash in her scalp. In the second incident, a group of anti-union workers at Global Garment Ltd. were organized by supervisors to physically prevent four union leaders from entering the factory to go to work. The anti-union workers slapped, punched and kicked the leaders, then dragged them away from the factory while supervisors including the managing director looked on and encouraged the attackers. The second incident was captured on the company’s security cameras, which came into the hands of the Workers Rights Consortium.
The Worker Rights Consortium reported on the attacks and began to press the brands sourcing from Azim to stop production unless the Azim Group repudiate the attacks, discipline the responsible persons, and recognize the BIGUF union, all of which the WRC stated would be required for compliance with university codes of conduct.
The brands involved were some of the most important in the world: VF Corporation, which bills itself as “the world’s largest apparel company”; PVH, maker of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and other brands, Li & Fung, acting as agent for Kohl’s department stores; and Gap were the main US brands, accounting for over half of Azim’s production and revenue. After pressure from the WRC and USAS, the brands began to respond. In early December the brands got Azim to agree to an independent investigator to asses the situation. I was asked to supervise the investigation, along with a management lawyer hired by VF. A professor from the City University of Hong Kong visited the factories and interviewed workers and managers. We watched the video of the assault with the victims, and identified the participants. When the investigation report was filed, confirming that there had been company-inspired violence against the union leaders, all the brands stopped production and new orders, putting everything on hold until Azim met with the union and worked out a settlement that complied with the brands’ codes of conduct.
One would think that a company faced with the loss of over half of its business would quickly do what was necessary to avoid that outcome. But the Azim Group founder is a a former member of parliament and member of one of the richest and most powerful families in Bangladesh. Azim had the support of the government, including the Labour Ministry, and of the powerful employers’ association, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Not until December 27, four days before the December 31 deadline set by brands for reaching agreement on a settlement, did Azim call BIGUF to arrange a meeting. The director of military intelligence called BIGUF leader Chandon to a meeting, and told him, “It’s time to sit down with Azim and settle this.” The next day the Global Garment Ltd Workers Union and Chandon met with factory management and agreed on reinstatement with backpay for the union leaders and recognition of the union. Azim then pressured BIGUF to ask the brands to resume production, saying that if that didn’t happen immediately Azim would have to close the two factories.
BIGUF sent messages to the brands saying things were good at Global Garment Ltd. and that the agreement was being implemented. They pointedly did not directly ask the brands to resume business as usual.
The WRC and WU-SEIU consulted with BIGUF and understood the need for further pressure to get Azim to reach an agreement with the Global Trousers Ltd. Workers Union at the other factory, and to agree to an ongoing process of verifying compliance, either an Ombudsperson or a bipartite commission. The brands were made to understand that an incomplete and inadequate settlement would not end the conflict, and that they could be forced to pull their production out in a few month’s time if the current conflict was not fully resolved. The key issue was the recognition of the Global Trousers Ltd. Workers Union.
After the December 28 agreement, the brands had extended the deadline for full compliance to January 31. So after four weeks of resistance, Azim Group finally came to the bargaining table with the Global Trousers Ltd. Workers Union and reached agreement on February 3, recognizing the union and withdrawing their complaints with the Labour Ministry.
What has been accomplished by this effort is the preservation of the two factory-level unions, which are the base of BIGUF’s support in Chittagong, and the demonstration that the use of violence against trade unionists will arouse the international community and cause the brands to respond to public pressure by threatening to pull out of the factories involved in conflict unless there is an acceptable resolution.
We have seen great pressure placed on BIGUF by the Bangladesh government, including by the same military and intelligence services that are suspected of involvement in the kidnapping, torture and murder of trade union leader Aminul Islam in April 2012. The Labour Ministry has refused to register new unions affiliated with BIGUF and is considering a challenge to BIGUF’s own registration. The prime minister has accused unnamed persons, foreign and domestic, of “conspiring to destroy the Bangladesh RMG [ready-made garment] industry” in a speech December 7 to the BGMEA-sponsored “Apparel Summitt’. warning factory owners and brands to “be careful”.
The brands have agreed to a bipartite commission to visit the Azim factories and interview workers both on and off0site, to ensure compliance. The labor representative will be me for at least one early visit, and someone from the Solidarity Center Bangladesh team after that.
We hope this struggle will be a turning point for Bangladesh workers and unions, who are beginning to find ways to fight against all odds and in spite of brutal violence to win recognition of their unions.
Director, Global Strategies
Workers United, SEIU