DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — An international human rights group has accused Bangladesh authorities of harassing and intimidating garment worker leaders and rights activists, saying 34 of them have been arrested since December on charges it alleged were politically motivated.
Bangladesh has the world's second-largest garment industry, which supplies many Western retailers and is vital to the developing country's economy.
Workers from 20 factories stopped working and blocked roads during the protests Dec. 11-19 in an industrial zone near Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. Factory owners rejected the demand and temporarily closed many factories, and police began making arrests. The protesters demanded a monthly minimum wage increase from 5,300 takas ($67) to 15,000 ($187) or 16,000 ($200).
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday that the authorities should respond sensibly.
"Targeting labor activists and intimidating workers instead of addressing their wage grievances tarnishes Bangladesh's reputation and makes a mockery of government and industry claims that they are committed to protecting worker's rights," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh and aid donors should press the government to stop persecuting workers and labor rights activists."
A rights activist told The Associated Press on Thursday that many have faced "systematic harassment" and went into hiding after the chaos at Ashulia area in December.
"We work for the workers but we are facing crackdown, I will call it crackdown. We are being intimidated," Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told the AP by phone from a jail gate where she went to meet two of her colleagues who got bail.
Akter said their offices at Ashulia were forcibly closed by police.
"This is unfortunate as we don't act against the industry, we work for the workers' rights," she said.
Government authorities could not be reached for comment immediately, but a business group leader disputed claims that 34 people have been arrested.
"So far I know nine people have been arrested because of their instigation that disrupted the sector," Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, told the AP late Thursday.
"More than 4 million people are involved in the industry, most of them love this sector as we all earn bread and butter from this, but only a few always attempt to destabilize such a vital sector in various way. Their common tactic is to create violence and disrupt production," Rahman said. "Can't we seek protection from the government? Can't the government act in line with law of the country? Any one-sided claims that are harmful to the industry should not be taken for granted."
Human Rights Watch also urged global brands and donors attending an apparel summit in Bangladesh's capital later this month to use the event to call on the government to stop all prosecution of union leaders and to defend workers' freedom of association.
Factory owners earlier said that activists often created chaos in the industry for their personal gains and acted against the country's interest. The government says it will not tolerate any chaos in the industry but will continue to work to improve workplace safety and workers' rights.
The factory owners also complain that global brands are not ready to pay higher wages and bargain hard, putting extreme pressure on the manufacturers to keep prices cheaper. The local industry is second to China's in size, with India and Vietnam also major competitors.
Meenakshi Ganguly, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, said it also was working to protect workers' rights.
"We are pressing upon global brands to ensure that they source products that protect labor rights. In the race for profit, or cheap deals, it should not be the worker that is denied international rights and protections," she said.
Bangladesh's garment industry earns more than $25 billion a year from exports, mainly to the United States and Europe. The sector has about 2,500 factories that employ about 4 million workers, mostly women.