March 08, 2021

The 2016–2020 Ashulia Strike Cases: Garment Worker Union Leaders in the Bangladeshi Criminal Justice System

The cases of seven full-time union or federation organizers and one garment factory worker who were allegedly involved in the 2016 Ashulia protests exemplify the ongoing anti-union discrimination against union leaders in Bangladesh.

Female garment workers participate in protest.

Female garment workers participate in protest.

Maruf Rahman via Pixabay

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Bangladesh’s garment industry is the second-largest in the world, comprising approximately 84% of Bangladesh’s export revenue and establishing the backbone of its economy. Yet, garment workers represent a particularly vulnerable population in Bangladesh. Approximately four out of five garment workers are women, often working in “unsafe, unhealthy, and unsanitary” environments without job security.

On December 11, 2016, workers in about 20 garment factories in Ashulia, the majority of which were non-union factories, went on strike. The minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh was then a mere $67 per month. Workers were demanding $200 per month in order to cover their basic necessities.In response to the strike, over 1,500 workers were either suspended, dismissed or forced to resign following the strike and protested for several days.  Police also allegedly arrested at least 34 union leaders and organizers, many of whom were not even in Ashulia during the demonstrations. Although a provision of the Special Powers Act barring the commission of “prejudicial acts” had been repealed by the government of Bangladesh in the 1990s, many of those arrested were charged under this provision. The union leaders, organizers and garment workers were detained and harassed by police, allegedly to discourage them and others from exercising their right to freedom of association.

Beginning in December 2018, thousands of garment workers from global brand factories in the Ashulia industrial area retook to the streets in protest and went on strike following the implementation of a monthly minimum wage of 8,000 taka (approximately $96 USD), approximately half of what trade union leaders had demanded during prior negotiations with the government.Labor rights reported that the wage revision fell short of any credible calculation of a living wage. Following a January 2019 demonstration, factory bosses reportedly fired at least 5,000 low-paid garment workers for global brands, and authorities allegedly used the strikes as the basis to arrest national union federation leaders and labor activists, and charged them for crimes like vandalism.

The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the vulnerability of Bangladeshi garment workers, leaving them in an even more precarious situation: 45.8% of suppliers reported that “a lot” to “most” of their nearly completed or entirely completed orders had been cancelled by their buyers. Despite the contractual obligations of buyers to pay for these orders, U.S. and European fashion companies have refused to pay overseas suppliers for at least $16 billion worth of goods since the outbreak of COVID-19.  As a result, at least one million garment workers in Bangladesh have been fired or furloughed, and 72.4% of furloughed workers were sent home without pay. A report by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights found that 98.1% of buyers refused to contribute to the cost of paying partial wages to furloughed workers as required by Bangladesh's labor law, and 97.3% of buyers refused to contribute to severance pay expenses of dismissed workers. In December 2020, hundreds of garment workers were reported to be sleeping under makeshift shelters and in sleeping bags on the streets of Dhaka. Police have allegedly used excessive force through the use of water cannons and batons against peaceful protesters calling for their unpaid wages. Following a government stimulus package and disbursement of emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund, most of Bangladesh’s garment factories have now re-opened.  However, garment workers that have returned to work risk exposure to the coronavirus and continue to face the threat of layoffs and wage cuts.

In response to the increased vulnerability of Bangladeshi garment workers and the criminalization of union leaders, the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights (Center) undertook an analysis of how the Bangladeshi criminal justice system has processed the criminal cases of seven full-time union or federation organizers and one garment factory worker allegedly involved in the Ashulia protests. The report focuses on the 2016 Ashulia strike cases since they have direct relevance for current events. The government and factory owners continue to crack down on garment worker protests. Union leaders play an essential role in collectively advocating for the rights of workers, including fair wages, safe working conditions, protection from harassment, and more. The collective advocacy and assertion of union leaders' fundamental rights to association and assembly are more important than ever to protect workers from further abuse and maltreatment amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The report’s Introduction (Part II) details the 2016 Ashulia strike events, the government of Bangladesh’s crackdown against garment workers and union leaders allegedly involved in the protests, and the international response to the crackdown. Part III of the report provides a general overview of the Bangladeshi criminal procedure and Bangladesh’s obligations under international law. Part IV of the report focuses on Bangladeshi criminal procedure and international human rights law standards as applied to the cases of the seven aforementioned defendants. All seven defendants reported that they were not provided with a warrant at the time of their arrest, and a number of the defendants reported lack of access to legal counsel. Additionally, several of the defendants alleged that, while detained, they were subject to death threats and threats of torture. As a result, the Center finds that the defendants’ legal rights, including the right to fair trial, appear to have been substantially violated under both Bangladeshi and international law.

Based on evidence-based research, the report concludes with Part V which lays out the following recommendations for the government of Bangladesh:

  1.  Ensure that law enforcement comply with the orders of the Supreme Court issued in the 2003 and 2017 Bangladeshi Legal Aid and Services Trust v. Bangladesh decisions concerning the arrest and detention of individuals accused of criminal activity;
  2. Require courts to inform the accused of their right to apply for legal counsel;
  3. Ensure that police do not abuse loopholes to extend detention authorized under Bangladeshi law by magistrates beyond the maximum of 15 days;
  4. Strengthen existing avenues for investigating officers, magistrates, and prosecutors to withdraw a suspect from a case or dismiss a case in the absence of clear evidence of criminal conduct, and suspend the prosecution of other cases involving the 2016 Ashulia strike individuals discussed in this report;
  5.  Create an independent task force dedicated to investigating allegations of misuse of the criminal justice system, torture, and death by law enforcement to align with international recommendations and legal standards, and hold magistrate and prosecutors accountable under criminal and disciplinary procedures for the misuse of justice system;
  6. Abide by and address the concluding observations and guidance advanced by several international monitoring bodies—namely, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the U.N. Committee Against Torture, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association, and allow the U.N. Special Rapporteurs to conduct country visits and subsequently implement recommendations made by the Special Rapporteurs.

VIEW THE FULL REPORT (ENGLISH)