National Garment Workers Federation Office, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Dhaka diary 1: Unions growing fast after Rana Plaza
Tiny motor scooter taxis plough through waves of traffic, beeping car horns fill the air and the sky fades from clear blue to hazy orange as another balmy evening sets in over Dhaka. I am very far from the British seaside, but someone I last went shopping (unsuccessfully) with in Bournemouth is here with me.
Amirul Haque Amin, President of the National Garment workers federation, opened the TUC Congress in Bournemouth last September with a powerful speech about the devastation of the Rana Plaza collapse. Now I am visiting Dhaka to meet trade unions in the garment sector and today Amin has invited me to see the NGWF office. It is 7pm and yet the office is still a hive of activity.
Unions across Bangladesh have a new lease of life after a year of dramatic developments. At the start of 2013 unions in Bangladesh were still suffering under decades-old repressive laws where anti-trade union violence, and even murder, went unpunished while trade unions were effectively banned in garment factories. This left garment workers largely unorganised and often unable to resist demands to work very long shifts for the lowest wages in the world to make clothes – often that ended up in UK high street shops.
The collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013 forced this to change.
It was lack of worker voice combined with the extreme negligence of the factory owners to health and safety that caused the shocking loss of life in the collapse – 1130 workers died and 2000 were injured. Workers in the factories could see there were cracks but were too afraid of losing pay to voice safety concerns or stay away from the building despite visible cracks in the building.
Last summer, the USA took the important step of suspending Bangladesh’s trade privileges due to inadequacies in the Labour Law. The American Solidarity Centre, which has an office in Dhaka, played an important role in highlighting how of freedom of association was being suppressed consistently in the garment industry.
In response, the Bangladesh government made several amendments to the Labour Law, the most important of which meant unions were legally able to operate in the garment sector.
Speaking to Amin and his fellow NGWF leader Arifa Akhtar, I learn lots of problems remain with the new Labour Law, however. A clause in the law states that trade union members must be an employee of a workplace, which means employers can simply sack labour leaders to weaken the union. Amin shows me the long list of trade union grievances that, on behalf of their members, they are currently taking through the law courts – the list covers half a wall. The most common cause of grievance is unfair dismissal.
In addition the Labour Law still bans trade unions from operating in Export Processing Zones (EPZs), where clothes are made for international brands. Public sector workers and workers in the very large informal sector are not covered by the Labour Law.
The US government has set out rigorous criteria that the Bangladesh Labour Law must meet in order for the US to award trade privileges again. These include respecting Freedom of Association, allowing unions in EPZs, and protecting union members from discrimination and harassment.
The British government has a very important role to play in pressing the Bangladesh government to reform the Labour Law along the same lines.
The EU decided not to introduce trade sanctions against Bangladesh after Rana Plaza but instead signed a ‘Global Sustainability Compact’ with the government of Bangladesh. This committed the Bangladesh government to reform labour laws and increase trade union rights. The EU has a lot of clout with the Bangladesh government as it is the world’s largest importer of Bangladesh garments.
The UK government must work closely with trade unions in Bangladesh to understand how the current Labour Law falls short of these requirements and use its influence with the Bangladesh government to make sure freedom of association is respected.
Despite the limitations of the Labour Law – and virulent anti-trade union coverage in many newspapers – the Bangladeshi union movement is making the most of the reforms that have been enacted, and are growing fast.
In 2013, 96 new trade unions in the RMG sector were registered with the Bangladesh Department of Labour (DoL). In contrast, only two trade unions in the RMG sector registered with DoL during the previous two years.
To make the most of this impressive growth and the opportunities offered by the Bangladesh Accord we need to make sure the Labour Law is reformed properly to allow full freedom of association.