Dhaka (AFP) - Leading fashion brands including H&M and Zara will boycott a key industry conference in Bangladesh in support of garment workers who have been sacked, hunted or jailed for participating in wage strikes, the companies said Wednesday.
H&M, C&A, Tchibo and Inditex which owns Zara -- all top clients of Bangladesh's $30-billion garment industry -- have pulled out of the Dhaka Apparel Summit, the signature annual event in the global textile hub, scheduled for Saturday.
The move follows strikes in December when tens of thousands of garment workers in the industrial town of Ashualia staged mass protests demanding a three-fold hike in pay, which can run as low as $68 a month.
Dutch clothing brand C&A said, "C&A together with other apparel brands, including H&M and Inditex decided not to participate in the BGMEA Dhaka Apparel Summit."
"We strongly encourage the Government of Bangladesh to take immediate steps to ensure the protection of the workers' rights, with special attention to the legitimate representatives of the workers who have been arrested," C&A spokesman Thorsten Rolfes told AFP.
A spokesman for Swedish apparel giant H&M confirmed the boycott.
"H&M believes that attending the Dhaka Apparel Summit would create confusion and send the wrong signals regarding our commitment to freedom of association and that the ongoing situation must be peacefully resolved," spokesman IÃ±igo SÃ¡enz Maestre said.
The strike, which lasted for a little over two weeks, was squashed, with some 1,600 employees sacked and 34 arrested, while cases alleging burglary, arson, vandalism and extortion, among other charges, were filed against more than 1,500 workers.
Last week union leaders said the workers were "living in constant fear of being arrested as the police hunt those who were involved in the strikes".
The summit is hosted by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), an industry body that represents the country's 4,500 clothing factories, and features Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as its keynote speaker.
BGMEA president Siddiqur Rahman told AFP that they "did not get any communication from any brand not attending the summit".
International rights group Clean Clothes Campaign welcomed the brands' decision to withdraw participation and said it would be "a major embarrassment" for the government and the organisers.
CCC spokeswoman Mirjam van Heugten said, "Unless all detainees are released, unsubstantiated charges are dropped, and other acts of intimidation and harassment of trade unions are stopped... (the brands) cannot credibly participate in a summit on "sustainable growth" of the industry."