Bangladesh accused of harassing garment worker activists

Garment workers gather in front of the head office of BGMEA, during a protest in Dhaka in this file photo. (Reuters)
Updated 17 February 2017
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Bangladesh accused of harassing garment worker activists

DHAKA: 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 (HRW) 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 HRW. “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 do not 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 (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. “Cannot we seek protection from the government? Cannot 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.”
HRW 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.


France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

Updated 19 May 2019
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France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

  • His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent
  • In his country, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s savior and next week’s European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rousing EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent. And at home, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be the key moment that he could push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who criticized the 28-nation bloc could achieve unprecedented success.
They argue that EU leaders have failed to manage migration into the continent and remain out of touch with ordinary workers’ concerns.
“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe, when you look at the past five to six years, in our country but in a lot of countries, all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing,” Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe.”
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he’s at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France’s youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe’s only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU’s 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU’s problems, he wants to fix the bloc — not disassemble it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France’s far-right, anti-immigration party leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the Unites States and China. Since then, he’s had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris’ Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He called his political tactics with other EU leaders a “productive confrontation.”
“In Europe, what is expected from France is to clearly say what it wants, its goals, its ambitions, and then be able to build a compromise with Germany to move forward” with other European countries, Macron said last week.
Macron stressed that despite her initial reluctance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last year to create a eurozone budget they hope will boost investment and provide a safety mechanism for the 19 nations using the euro currency.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for a Europe of “freedom, protection and progress” with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that “offer nothing.”
And he proposed to define a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year in a discussion with all member nations and a panel of European citizens.
“There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?” he asked.
France and Germany are the two heavyweights in Europe, and Macron can also count on cooperation from pro-European governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others.
He has made a point, however, of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of “lying” to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy over migration into Europe. Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen’s National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament’s 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron’s Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called “Renaissance.” The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are not expected to come out remotely on top but rank third or even lower behind the parliament’s traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People’s Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Polls suggest his party will be among France’s top two vote-getters in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
But its main rival, the far-right National Rally party, is determined to take revenge on Macron beating Le Pen so decisively in 2017.
Macron’s political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European vote to reject his government’s policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, French polls show that Macron’s popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France’s yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive violence during yellow vest protests, especially in Paris, dampened support for the movement’s cause.
Still, the yellow vests are not going away. New protests against Macron and his government are planned for the EU election day.