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Rights Abuses Still Rampant in Bangladesh’s Garment Sector

DHAKA/NEW YORK, Jun 10 2015 (IPS) - Some say they were beaten with iron bars. Others confess their families have been threatened with death. One pregnant woman was assaulted with metal curtain rods.

 These are not scenes typically associated with a place of work, but thousands of people employed in garment factories in Bangladesh have come to expect such brutality as a part of their daily lives.

Even if they don’t suffer physical assault, workers at the roughly 4,500 factories that form the nucleus of Bangladesh’s enormous garments industry almost certainly confront other injustices: unpaid overtime, sexual or verbal abuse, and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.

Two years ago, when all the world’s eyes were trained on this South Asian nation of 156 million people, workers had hoped that the end of systematic labour abuse was nigh.

The event that prompted the international outcry – the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on the morning of Apr. 24, 2013, killing 1,100 people and injuring 2,500 more – was deemed one of the worst industrial accidents in modern history.

Government officials, powerful trade bodies and major foreign buyers of Bangladesh-made apparel promised to fix the gaping flaws in this sector that employs four million people and exports 24 billion dollars worth of merchandise every year.

Promises were made at every point along the supply chain that such a senseless tragedy would never again occur.

But a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster has found that, despite pledges made and some steps in the right direction, Bangladesh’s garments sector is still plagued with many ills that is making life for the 20 million people who depend directly or indirectly on the industry a waking nightmare.

Based on interviews with some 160 workers in 44 factories, predominantly dedicated to manufacturing garments sold by retailers in Australia, Europe and North America, the report found that safety standards are still low, workplace abuse is common, and union busting – as well as violence attacks and intimidation of union organisers – is the norm.

Still, there is a silver lining on the dark cloud: an international donor’s fund set up in 2013 under the aegis of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently reached its goal of raising 30 million dollars, which will be paid to victims and survivors of the 2013 tragedy.

In a statement on Jun. 9, 2015, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder stressed, “This is a milestone but we still have important business to deal with. We must now work together to ensure that accidents can be prevented in the future.”

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