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Workers on the Edge in Bangladesh. Covid Lockdown Undermines Garment Industry

The global COVID-19 response is shaking garment supply chains and changing how Canadian unions do solidarity with Bangladeshi workers.

By Asad Ismi

“COVID-19 will be a catastrophe for Bangladeshi garment workers.” 

I am speaking with Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF). It is March 19. Governments around the world have ordered the temporary closure of retail outlets and other businesses, putting millions of people out of work. The shutdown in the West put immediate pressure on global supply chains, in particular for sectors like clothing.

“The international brands that source from garment factories in Bangladesh have already started cancelling their orders for clothes. Consequently, Bangladeshi workers are in very bad shape presently. They are not only afraid of getting infected by COVID-19, but also fear that thousands of them will be laid off and so have no money to put food on the table for their families,” says Akter.

“These are workers who were poor and vulnerable to begin with before the spread of the virus as they were being denied a living wage that would allow them to buy basic necessities.”

While several countries including Canada have announced aid packages for wage earners who lose their jobs due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Bangladesh government had, by mid-April, taken no such step. According to Akter, “it is unlikely that it will do so in the future.”

Bangladesh is the second biggest exporter of garments in the world after China, and with 4.1 million workers in the sector it is the country’s leading export earner. Over 75% of these workers are women. According to Akter, the garment sector pays poverty wages and is notorious for the suppression of labour rights and the presence of high levels of gender-based violence. In the past, Bangladeshi garment manufacturers have also been notorious for dangerously unsafe factories.

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in the capital city of Dhaka collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring 2,500. It was one of the deadliest industrial accidents the world had ever witnessed. International and domestic public outrage and pressure on international brands from Bangladeshi and other unions, including in Canada, resulted in major improvements in factory safety, but the other significant problems remain unaddressed.

Since 2013, the Canadian labour movement has been working with the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS), which is closely linked to the Akter’s federation, to press governments, employers and international brands to work together to improve working conditions for Bangladeshi garment sector workers. The Canadian unions involved include the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), United Steelworkers (USW), Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

These unions give the BCWS funding for core operations and for providing training and support for women leaders in factories. Doug Olthuis, executive director of the USW Humanity Fund, explains that through their financial help, support in Bangladesh and support in Canada, “We’ve raised our political voice with the governments of both Bangladesh and Canada to make sure appropriate measures are taken to uphold labour rights, especially the ability to freely join unions.

“That has had some impact on the Canadian government, which knows that there is a constituency in Canada that is watching what Ottawa does,” he continues. “This has been helpful for sure. It is important for Canadian unions to make some noise to motivate the government to act on behalf of Bangladeshi garment workers because otherwise it won’t.”

Transnational solidarity has also amplified concerns raised by workers in Bangladesh with their country’s Ministry of Labour.

“The fact that Canadian unions meet with the ministry means that the Bangladesh government knows that they are being watched and that unions and consumers from around the world are paying attention to what it does,” says Olthuis, who joined representatives from CUPE, PSAC, OSSTF and CLC on a delegation to Dhaka in May 2019.

Canadian unions are planning to launch a campaign for a living wage for Bangladeshi garment workers. This is a major concern for Akter, who explains that the poverty wages garment workers currently get do not even cover their monthly costs. Workers often have to work 16-hour days to try to make ends meet, which means they have no family life at all. The workers have no savings either, which makes it impossible for them to deal with a crisis such as COVID-19.

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Louise Casselman, the PSAC’s Social Justice Fund Officer, also travelled to Dhaka with the union solidarity delegation in May last year. She points out that the cost of clothing has been dropping while other consumer products tend to get more expensive from year to year.

International brands have all adopted a strategy of “fast fashion,” in which clothing trends change every two months, rather than seasonally, as a means of boosting sales. To convince consumers back to the rack more frequently, prices must be kept low, explains Casselman, which has meant keeping the wages of garment workers low as well.

“This explains why workers in the apparel industry are facing such substandard wages and working conditions and why their attempts to organize to improve their living and working conditions face such resistance,” she tells me.

Unionization and labour rights are not just under threat in Bangladesh, according to Akter, but effectively criminalized.

“When workers try to organize, they are fired. This is very common,” she remarks. “There is no freedom of association in Bangladesh.”

In 2016, when workers raised their voices for a higher minimum wage, they were handed criminal charges. Many workers, including one of Akter’s organizers, were thrown in prison for months.

“During the last two years, over 10,000 workers have been fired for making wage increase demands and three dozen criminal charges have been laid against 7,000 workers. But our workers are brave, and in spite of this repression, they never stop raising their voices and never stop fighting.” However, the state crackdowns in 2016 and 2018 have “pushed back our labour movement at least by a few years” Akter says.

If it is especially hard to change the insidious combination of lack of job security and official repression in Bangladesh, Akter explains it is because, “in many cases, our government is our factory owner.” Some legislators in Bangladesh own garment factories. “In a country like that, where the power dynamic is so critical, it is difficult to fight for your rights.”

Olthuis concurs with Akter that “a lot of the lawmakers in the Bangladeshi parliament are actually garment factory owners,” which he says compromises the Bangladesh government on this issue. “We talk about state capture, and in my opinion the government has been quite captured by the garment sector. It’s room to maneuver is limited.”

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There is also enormous gender-based violence and sexual harassment in Bangladeshi factories, says Akter.

“Because of the culture it happens, it begins at the top. It is time for us to break that silence and get these manufacturers to have anti-harassment committees in the factories and also to pressure our government to pass a law against such violence and harassment.”

Akter is in agreement with the Canadian unions’ planned international campaign for providing a living wage to Bangladeshi garment workers. “It is very crucial to have Canadian unions pressure Canadian brands to pay garment workers a living wage. This is not just for the Bangladeshi workers, it’s for the whole supply chain, no matter which country they are sourcing from.

“We really need these jobs,” Akter continues. “But we want jobs with dignity. And at this moment the jobs we have are not dignified. Canadian consumers should know that the workers don’t have a living wage and should support their demands for better wages and raise their voices with the Canadian brands in this regard.”

But the chaos created by the COVID-19 virus has also thrown international solidarity into uncharted waters. Casselman observes that this moment “sheds new light on the vulnerability of a supply chain that offers no safeguards or protection for a workforce contracted out to local manufacturers whose own profit margin depends on the super-exploitation of labour.”

Garment workers, like many other manufacturing workers, face plant shutdowns “due to the lack of inputs from China and the contraction of demand,” explains Casselman, noting that isolation measures to contain the virus are shuttering demand across Europe and North America. Solidarity work will have to adjust.

“We already know we will need to increase the role of workers, women, Indigenous peoples and [people of African descent] and their access to social, economic and political rights. COVID-19 could wipe out many of the gains made by the social movements over the last generation, unless we are prepared to fight for a model of development based on a new equitable, green economy, based on fundamental human rights.

“It will not be given to us, so we will have to fight for it, and be prepared to accompany those on the frontlines of social change.”

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Bangladesh: Hundreds of Rohingya Refugees Stranded at Sea

Posted by: Sammi Ibrahem,Sr

Thousands of Rohingya stranded on Bangladesh border.

Rights groups urge Bangladesh government to allow some 500 Rohingya stuck in the Bay of Bengal to come ashore.

Hundreds of Rohingya refugees are stranded on board two fishing trawlers in the Bay of Bengal without being able to reach land, while the Bangladesh government said they are not its responsibility, Al Jazeera reported Saturday.

RELATED: Bangladesh Orders Lockdown in Rohingya Camps Over COVID-19

At least 500 Rohingya refugees may have been at sea for weeks without adequate food and water, drawing criticism from rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister AK Abdul Momen told Al Jazeera that the Rohingya refugees are “not Bangladesh’s responsibility.”

“Why you are asking Bangladesh to take those Rohingyas? They are in the deep sea, not even in Bangladesh’s territorial water,” Momen said, adding that there are at least eight coastal countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal.

“It’s your duty to ask Myanmar government first because those are their citizens,” Momen told Al Jazeera.

The two trawlers recently received inhuman rejection by the countries of the region, putting of refugees and asylum seekers’ lives at risk, HRW denounced.

Malaysia has imposed restrictions on all boats in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving hundreds of Rohingya on board to their fate, as well as Thailand has indicated that it will refuse entry to Rohingya boats.

The official said that just weeks ago, Bangladesh rescued a total of 396 Rohingya people from a vessel that had been adrift for about two months after also failing to reach Malaysia.

“Why should Bangladesh take responsibility every time? Momen asked. “Bangladesh has already taken more than a million of Rohingya. We are running out of our generosity now.”

For his part, Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW said that “Bangladesh has shouldered a heavy burden as the result of the Myanmar military’s atrocity crimes, but this is no excuse to push boatloads of refugees out to sea to die.”

“Bangladesh should continue to help those at grave risk and preserve the international goodwill it has gained in recent years for helping the Rohingya,” he added. 

UNHCR also expressed its concern about the rejections and said “we are increasingly concerned by reports of failure to disembark vessels in distress and of the grave immediate risk this poses to the men, women and children on board. Search and rescue, along with prompt disembarkation, are life-saving acts.”

Under international law, public health measures taken by countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence, so the pandemic cannot justify a general ban, such as Bangladesh’s refusal to allow any Rohingya now or in the future to disembark.

Currently, around 900,000 Rohingya live in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, most of whom fled Myanmar since August 2017 to escape the military’s crimes against humanity and possible genocide.

The estimated 600,000 Rohingya that remain in Rakhine State in Myanmar are subject to government persecution and violence, confined to camps and villages without freedom of movement, and cut off from access to adequate food, health care, education, and livelihoods.

According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas are “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world,” while the Myanmar government has so far refused to grant them citizenship, violating their fundamental rights and leaving them as stateless, what makes their situation worse.

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Visit to China

NOVANEWS

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Visit to China Will Elevate Bangladesh’s Role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Extend China’s Influence in South Asia

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will visit China from July 3 to 5, during which time she’s expected to ink several agreements focusing mostly on power generation and economic cooperation, according to her country’s media. The South Asian state has always enjoyed excellent relations with China and has recently become one of its largest overseas investment destinations, with some reports calculating that the People’s Republic has approximately 30-billion-U.S.-dollars’ worth of interests there already.

A lot of this is concentrated in the power generation industry, just like the lion’s share of investments in the nearby China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), though textiles are quickly catching the attention of Chinese businessmen nowadays too. Bangladesh is already one of the world’s largest garment producers, and its role in this trade is only expected to increase as more companies come to appreciate its low-cost labor, high-quality production capabilities, and strategic location.

China and Bangladesh have yet to sign a free trade agreement even though Beijing proposed one back in 2014. Negotiations are presently ongoing and some progress might be made on this front during Prime Minister Hasina’s visit, though no breakthrough should be expected at this point in time. Although the two sides are very close partners and located in near proximity to one another, they lack the physical connectivity between them that could take their trading ties to the next level and make the clinching of a free trade agreement a reality.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali deliver speeches after the meeting in Beijing, China, June 29, 2018. /CGTN photo

China has been trying to pioneer the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor for quite a few years but the project stalled after New Delhi expressed disinterest due to what some observers speculated might have been political reasons. India is opposed to anything having to do with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) because it believes that the CPEC, its flagship project, infringes on its sovereignty since it transits through Pakistani territory that it claims as its own per its maximalist approach to the Kashmir Conflict.

Even so, Indian Prime Minister Modi sent some positive signals to President Xi during their interactions at the SCO Summit in Bishkek and the G20 in Osaka, especially since the latter event saw the hosting of an informal summit between the Russian, India and Chinese leaders who collectively represent the Eurasian core of BRICS.

It’s therefore not entirely unforeseeable that India might reconsider its inflexible stance towards the BRI and decide to selectively participate in some projects of shared interest such as the BCIM Economic Corridor, which in that case would naturally improve China and India’s trading ties with Bangladesh and Myanmar.

After all, they already have converging interests in those two countries, so it makes sense to cooperate with one another instead of competing like some observers have suggested they’re doing. Should that scenario eventually transpire, then Bangladesh and Myanmar would be all the more developed and stable because of it.

And that’s exactly what those two neighboring countries need most of all and as soon as possible, too, since the Rohingya issue continues to plague their bilateral relations and endanger regional stability. Bangladesh is hosting around 700,000 Rohingya refugees that fled a large-scale anti-terrorist operation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State back in 2017 that some countries criticized as excessive and possibly even deliberately targeting the civilian members of this demographic.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Qingdao to attend the SCO Qingdao Summit in Qingdao, China, June 9, 2018. /VCG Photo

In any case, the BCIM Economic Corridor probably won’t make any progress until this humanitarian issue is resolved between Bangladesh and Myanmar, but it’s here where China could play a constructive peacemaking role by helping to mediate a solution among its two partners. In fact, some Bangladeshi media reports even speculated that Prime Minister Hasina might discuss this issue during her upcoming trip to China and ask Beijing to encourage Naypyidaw to guarantee the safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees.

It’s too early to make any predictions about how exactly China could help to resolve this humanitarian problem, but it’s nevertheless important to point out that it does indeed have the diplomatic sway to at the very least make any prospective proposals heard in Myanmar. Considering that China’s vision is to ensure regional peace through equitable development and that the BCIM Economic Corridor would greatly facilitate its goal in this regard, then it wouldn’t be too surprising if its leaders listen attentively to whatever Prime Minister Hasina might suggest that they do about this during her upcoming trip.

Altogether, while the bulk of the Bangladeshi leader’s trip to China is expected to entail discussions and deal-making about various economic topics, there’s also the possibility that the Rohingya issue will be brought up too since its ultimate resolution would greatly facilitate more economic cooperation between all sides through the BCIM Economic Corridor that would then become politically feasible for all participants.



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Bangladesh set to relocate all Rohingya to mega refugee camp: Official

NOVANEWS
Image result for Rohingya PHOTO

Bangladesh says it plans to expand a massive settlement under construction in its southernmost district to house nearly 900,000 persecuted Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in Myanmar.

Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya, minister for disaster management and relief, said on Thursday that the estimated 890,000 refugees would eventually be moved to the new site near the border town of Cox’s Bazar.

“All of those who are living in scattered places… would be brought into one place. That’s why more land is needed. Slowly all of them will come,” media outlets quoted the minister as saying.

Elsewhere in his remarks, the minister said that families were already moving to the new site, known as the Kutupalong Extension.

There are currently nearly two dozen camps and other makeshift camps along the border. Two of the existing settlements have already been shut down.

Last month, two thousand acres of land next to the existing Kutupalong camp were set aside for the new Rohingya arrivals. Another 1,000 acres were later set aside for the new camp.

The number of newcomers has exceeded 500,000 — adding to 300,000 already in Bangladesh.

The mega camp project has, however, caused concern among doctors and charities on the ground that they fear a disease like cholera could spread quickly through such a congested, overpopulated site.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the situation is “slowly spiraling into a catastrophe of biblical proportions.”

According to Mark Lowcock, UN emergency relief coordinator, the world body would be seeking around $430 million to scale up the humanitarian operation for the destitute Rohingya.

In a fresh bout of violence in Myanmar, soldiers and Buddhist mobs have been attacking Rohingya Muslims and torching their villages since October 2016. The attacks have seen a sharp rise since August 25, following a number of purported armed attacks on police and military posts in the western state of Rakhine.

Many witnesses and rights groups have reported systematic attacks, including rape, murder and arson, at the hands of the army and Buddhist mobs against Rohingya Muslims, forcing them to leave their generations-old homes and flee to overcrowded and squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The UN has described the crackdown on Rohingya in Myanmar as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

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