Bangladesh releases arrested factory workers
Bangladesh garment workers arrested last year over wage strikes are being released, global union IndustriALL said Saturday, adding that international fashion brands have agreed not to boycott a key industry conference in capital Dhaka.
A strike by tens of thousands of workers in December demanding higher pay was quashed after around two weeks, with 1,600 employees sacked and 34 workers and union leaders arrested.
Cases alleging such things as burglary, arson, vandalism and extortion were also filed against more than 1,500 others, while authorities dismissed the workers' demands saying that no pay hike would be made before 2019.
Global fashion companies including H&M and Zara-owner Inditex -- top clients of Bangladesh's $30-billion garment industry -- later said they would pull out of a key conference in support of the workers.
The Dhaka Apparel Summit, scheduled for this weekend, is the signature annual event in the global textile hub with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina designated as keynote speaker.
But in a statement Saturday global garment union IndustriALL, who led a campaign against the Bangladesh government’s crackdown on the movement, said most of the workers had been released and the rest would be freed shortly.
"This is an important victory for garment workers in Bangladesh, sending a strong message to the country's industry to enter into a constructive dialogue with the trade unions," spokesman Valter Sanches said.
IndustriALL said it had entered into an agreement with the government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) -- a body representing 4,500 clothing factories -- allowing for the release of the workers.
The BGMEA had previously labelled the strikes illegal and warned that salary rises would drive retailers in Europe and the US to competitor markets like Myanmar.
"We will continue to support the fight for higher wages and will closely monitor the situation until all charges are dropped," IndustriALL's Bangladesh Council (IBC) spokesman Kutubuddin Ahmed told AFP.
"We have informed the brands who earlier pulled out from Dhaka Apparel Summit about the agreement and release of the workers and unionists. Following our confirmation, they have decided to join the summit."
A senior BGMEA official also said that the fashion companies would be joining the conference while H&M confirmed in an email to AFP that it had decided to participate.
- 'Unbearable' harassment -
Bangladesh's garment industry accounts for 80 percent of its annual exports, but it has a woeful history of poor pay and conditions for its four million workers.
Protests over wages, benefits and working conditions are common but gained intensity after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in April 2013, which killed 1,138 people.
Workers in the industrial town of Ashualia staged mass protests in December to demand a three-fold hike in pay, which can typically run as low as $68 a month.
The subsequent crackdown by authorities was widely criticised by international rights groups and top global brands.
Human Rights Watch said the union representatives were facing "unfair or apparently fabricated criminal cases".
Last week union leaders said workers were "living in constant fear" of being arrested as the police hunted those involved in the strikes.
On Saturday, Mohammad Ibrahim, a union leader who was jailed for nearly two months, told AFP that for now the majority of workers had only been released on bail but he hoped the charges would be dropped soon.
"Most of the arrested union leaders and workers are now out on bail," he said.
"The harassment we had to go through was unbearable. However we now want the authorities to withdraw all of the false cases."