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Organizing in Bangladesh – changing the dynamics

20 August, 2014Although an industry which often suffers from sub-standard conditions, low pay and low job security, organizing garment workers in Bangladesh can be an uphill battle. Together with its partners, IndustriALL is participating in a project to increase union membership in the factories.

1,300 garment workers in Gazipur, Dhaka turned to their union federation, IndustriALL Global Union affiliate the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Federation (BIGUF) and the Solidarity Center for support. By working to develop a constructive relationship with the employer, Masco Cotton, both sides have been able to sit down and negotiate and resolve issues in the factory.

Despite being faced with serious challenges when some workers lost their jobs and one union application being rejected three times before the Joint Director of Labour (JDL) registered it, workers persevered.

“They worked hard to demonstrate to the employer that overall if both sides sat down and negotiated, worker empowerment through a trade union could be beneficial for the factory,” says Rashedul Alom Raju, acting general secretary of the BIGUF.

“I am very happy that we have established a good relationship with our employer, but it hasn’t been a smooth path,” says Faruk, president of the Masco Cotton Ltd. Workers Union. “At first, I was suspended along with three other workers for trade union activity, and it was two and a half months before we were reinstated.”

Faruk continues:

“It took a lot of hard work for us to make the employer understand our problems. The training we received from BIGUF helped a lot. They trained us how to talk to and negotiate with the management.”

Through the process of negotiation, workers in the union factories have bargained with the employer to ensure they receive their salaries on time, and to increase attendance and other bonuses as well as night-shift differentials. The unions and management now meet monthly to discuss routine labour disputes and other issues. A recent negotiation was on the leave for the religious holiday Eid and to increase the number of fans on the factory floor.

Organizing for a sustainable garment industry

IndustriALL is supporting a major organizing project aiming to build a comprehensive union presence in the Bangladeshi garment factories. And the results are already showing. In 2013, the Bangladeshi government agreed to facilitate the registration of new local unions and in the last 12 months IndustriALL affiliates have organized more than 100 factories and 40,000 workers.

IndustriALL General secretary Jyrki Raina says that the aim is to beat those numbers in 2014.

Increasing union membership is a pivotal part of the long march towards a safe and sustainable garment industry in Bangladesh.

"The next step is then to provide the needed training to build the new union leaders’ capacity for collective bargaining, health and safety, and for solving problems.“

Mahbubul executive director of the Masco factory group says that training for both the management and the union can play an important role in developing a constructive relationship and maintaining industrial peace:

“The potential benefit of having a union in the factory is that we hear the voice of all the workers. Management can then understand the workers’ issues and work to solve those problems.”

Sanjida Akhter, worker and president of Masco Industries Ltd. Workers Unity Union, one of three union factories affiliated with BIGUF in the five-factory group, says:

 “Before we formed a union in our factory, workers had no way to communicate with the employer. But now things are different. Management will even approach the union to work out and discuss issues in the factory.”

Credit: Solidarity Centre