Cruel conditions at H&M garments factory

4. Apr 2014

The workers behind the world's two biggest brands, H&M and Zara face severe physical punishment, threats on their life and serious harassment every day.

Beatings. Violence and verbal harassment. Garment factories in Bangladesh have a bad reputation, and it doesn’t get better, when they produce for the biggest brands in the world. At the Well-Tex factory in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, more than a thousand workers produce high street clothes for the well-known brands, Zara and H&M.

One of the workers, a 23 year old woman, Lipi, says:
“Management beat us, not just once in a while but often. They punish people if they do not work fast enough or if they ask for rest”. Today, Lipi is Vice-President for the factories workers union, but she has experienced the roughness from management herself.

On October 9 2013 she was threatened by management to sign her own resignation.
“The manager said, that if I did not sign the paper, me and my husband would both get shot.”

H&M says in a respond to the problems at Well-Tex:
“Workers’ ability to organize and negotiate about their rights is key to improve working conditions, which is why we take violations in this area so seriously,” says Anna Gedda, Social Sustainability Manager at H&M.

Fired for being pregnant

Lipi has dedicated her time to work for the rights of her colleagues who are still working at the factory. She tells about one colleague that was held in a stranglehold, until her nose bled in january this year.
Hamida, a 25 year old woman, was fired in January after an extensive increase of her target rate. She was sewing baby pants and could manage 80-90 in an hour, well beyond her target rate of 40. But when the minimum wage was increased in January, her target tripled to 120, and when she could not manage this, she was verbally harassed and fired.

Many women have kept their pregnancies hidden to the management of Well Tex, because they were afraid of being fired. Hamida, a 27 year old women, had been working at the factory for four years. She kept her pregnancy hidden from management until october 26th, when she was eight months pregnant, and she felt exhausted from the hard work in the factory and asked her supervisor for a few days of rest. She revealed that she was expecting.

Managements immediate response was to fire her, with the loss of four months of maternity leave that she is entitled to by Bangladesh labor law. One month later she delivered her baby, Suborna, who is now four months old. With no job Hamida and her husband, who is a day labourer earning less than 25 british pounds a month, struggle to live on one pay check.

A slap in the face

September 16, 2013 the cruelty at the Well Tex factory became too much for the workers. A pregnant woman asked for a few days leave, only to be pushed of her chair to the floor by the supervisor, while he shouted at her: ”If you want sick leave – you cannot work here.”

Mojibar Rahman, one of the male workers, could not accept this behaviour and went to the production manager to complain.
“When I objected to the treatment of the pregnant woman, I was slabbed in the face. This made all of my colleagues stop their work and claim that they would unionize”.

As a response, the management of Well Tex put a picture of him and two of the other protesters on the gate of the factory and circulated their names to other factories, saying that they should not hire them. They even reported Mojibar Rahman to the police for theft and damage of factory machinery. When the police came for him in the evening, his colleagues would not surrender him to the police. Instead, they went to the union federation, Bangladesh National Garments Workers Employees League, where president Sirajul Islam Rony advised them to register their union officially and offered to help them.

The case was taken to mediation with Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and the police charges were dropped. Mojibar Rahman was allowed back to the factory.
On October the 23rd, a few days before a scheduled government inspection of the factory, Mojibar Rahman  received an official notice of dismissal. Since then more than 40 unionized workers have been fired and are now without work and income.

Mojibar Rahman and Lipi have held 5-6 meetings with factory management, but with no progress at all. “We have asked the management to put an end to the violence and the sudden layoffs, but they say that it is none of our business.” This does not put of Lipi: “I have seen many of my colleagues being treated really bad and it makes me so angry. I know my own experience how hard the work is and how it feels to be treated that way. This gives me the courage and willpower to take up the fight with factory management.

H&M’s response

H&M states in their response to the allegations that the company’s Code of Conduct states, that all employees have the right to form or join associations of their own choosing and to bargain collectively.
H&M does not accept disciplinary or discriminatory actions from the employer against employees, who choose to peacefully and lawfully organize or join an association. Freedom of association, however, remains a major challenge in many of the markets in which we operate due to various political and societal reasons. In an email, H&M responds:

“H&M has a close contact with the trade union and was notified of the situation from the trade union. We were trying to facilitate a dialogue between the parties involved and were hoping for them, that they would come to an agreement in good faith. Since Welltex breached our Code of Conduct and did not meet our demands, we have decided to terminate our business with this supplier, and we are currently out phasing the production. We want to make sure our collaboration with them is terminated in a responsible way. Unfortunately, we cannot comment on personnel matters on the factories, but we can inform you, that we do not place any new orders”, writes Anna Gedda, Social Sustainability Manager at H&M:

“As this is a major challenge in Bangladesh, we have worked actively and have set up an extensive training program, that aims to secure democratically elected workers participation committees in all our supplier factories. This will enable workers to negotiate their rights and responsibilities with their employers and together improve working conditions”.
H&M have made their list of suppliers public on their web-site in the name of transparency, but the Well-Tex factory does not figure on this list.

H&M explains: “H&M were one of the first fashion companies to publish our supplier list. Our supplier list contains the vast majority of our suppliers (95%) and currently excludes suppliers that we are testing for future production opportunities or suppliers that we are phasing out. The latter covers the supplier in question.”
According to the factory record of Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh the Well-Tex factory is a supplier of six of the signatories.

Facts: Violence at Well Tex

Faruja was forced to stand up for 12 hours with management shouting at her, because they found out, that she was a member of the workers union. She was fired on february 24th.

Nazima says, that when she joined the union, her boss told her bluntly, that she had no future on the factory.

Mazeda paid her boss 4 pounds a month just to be allowed to work at Well-Tex. When she refused to pay he said that the factory did not need her work any more and ripped her ID-card (which the workers need to get access to the factory and to receive their payments) from her. She complained to management and got her card back, but shortly after she was fired.