Nazma Akter, President of SGSF garment union describes support needed for women workers at a union meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Dhaka Diary 2: Women must lead this new union movement
During my visit to Dhaka, an encouraging number of trade unionists in the garment industry I’ve met are women. This suggests Bangladesh unions are starting to better resemble their industry: over 70% of the garment industry in Bangladesh are women.
However, women are still not prominent in leadership roles in unions. A notable exception is Nazma Akter, leader of SGSF union federation. I heard Nazma speak at an event in Dhaka about the many forms of discrimination against women she and her members suffer at work. She described routine harassment from male supervisors, still permitted by the amended Labour Law , which I blogged about here.
Women bore the brunt of the Rana Plaza disaster . It was mostly very young female workers who died or were terribly handicapped when the factory building collapsed – and these women are almost all still waiting for compensation. $40 million is still owed to them (see this very good report by Clean Clothes Campaign and update). The TUC along with Clean Clothes Campaign and other groups are currently campaigning make sure Benetton and all other brands with links to Rana Plaza pay up by the anniversary of the collapse on April 24th.
Trade unionists in Dhaka have told me that discrimination against women does not stop at the factory gate. Many also face discrimination in their community. As any activist is only as good as the support network around them, this is a major hurdle to women’s participation in unions. They suggested any training to empower women should involve training with the wider community on the discrimination women face and developing an encouraging climate to support women to take positions of responsibility within trade unions.
Many organisations – including unions and NGOs – are funding leadership programmes for women in unions. Official development assistance aid programmes to Bangladesh must support them too. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has supported initiatives to combat gender discrimination through its the ‘Responsible and Accountable Garment Sector’ (RAGS) project. Along with the Dutch government, DFID is also funding an ILO programme for improving safety conditions in the garment industry that will also include training safety inspectors in gender awareness. Women’s union leadership is an essential component of these programmes.
This is a hopeful time for Bangladeshi unions. Reforms to the Labour Law allow unions legally for the first time while the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety gives the opportunity for unions to expand by establishing Health and Safety Committees which must contain trade union representatives. Safety inspections for the Accord started last week. It will be the job of the Committees to help monitor the building repairs and report other safety concerns.
However, these opportunities won’t immediately lead to workers feeling secure or brave enough to speak out about safety concerns or discrimination. Making this a reality will take support for the women workers in the factories, speaking out and starting to lead their unions like Nazma Akter.