DHAKA, Bangladesh — Ruksana, a sewing operator with more than a dozen years of experience, speaks up clearly from her desk in the corner of the classroom.
The room is filled with a record number of “presidents” and “general secretaries,” representatives of the many trade unions that have come up in the last year; 323 new unions at last count. Most of these have been formed after the passing of a new law, in July 2013, by the Bangladesh labor ministry, allowing freedom of association without permission of employers. The surge toward unionization has set in motion a series of upheavals in the industry. Factory owners appear to be settling into a new acceptance with workers who are more vocal and demanding, while workers themselves are seeing real change.
More than 65 percent of the new union leaders are women, and it is obvious with the changing leaders that empowerment isn’t just a word here. It radiates.
But with empowerment also comes some very real fears — antagonism against union leaders has, in the past, led to physical harm, attacks and dismissal of workers. The question being asked over the last year as trade unions multiply is whether a new law can change a tradition of hierarchical systems, and if so, how quickly?
At the training session, Ruksana speaks up clearly from her desk. She is emphatic: As the president of the union that was set up in March at Update Apparels Ltd., she talks about threats from her employers, being asked to leave her job and a failure to get any bonus or incremental raise. She said that through all this, her own position was clear.
“I didn’t want anything for myself. I wanted to be able to ensure that we have the best for all the workers. They told me to take the money and go, leave the factory. I refused,” she said.
Hamida Khatun, assistant women’s secretary of the Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Sramik Dal, which is a national trade union federation, listens and advises her on the best way to communicate and — more importantly — to negotiate.
Ruksana says she will not give up, no matter the cost.
The question of vulnerability is thrown open in the classroom. Many of the others had different experiences, but these didn’t include violence or threats.
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Minu, president of a separate union in a factory in Badda, said she had led demands for change through presentations to the factory owners, many of which were accepted. Others nodded and said they did not fear attack, although a general sense of trepidation kept them in check.
“It is all quite new,” said Asna, the general secretary of another new union. “For them and for us. After the change of law, we also understand that we need to be more responsible. If the factory closes down because of our demands, it is bad for us, too. We are a bit afraid, but it is more because we have heard there is danger.”
“There is a transformational change going on,” said Alonzo Glenn Suson, country program director of the Solidarity Center. The center is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which works with unions, nongovernmental organizations and community groups worldwide to advance workers’ rights and promote broad-based, sustainable economic development.
“They have the confidence to speak to their boss, to their coworkers, finding solutions to the problems of other people. They have to take on criticism in the process, their husbands saying, ‘Why are you coming home later, talking to strange people?’…but it is empowering because they are able to be a spokesperson for themselves and their colleagues,” Suson said.
The unspoken dangers that Asna referred to include past incidents, especially the murder of Aminul Islam, a labor organizer, in 2012. Islam was a factory worker who became a leader and had several run-ins with factory owners as he negotiated workers’ rights. Despite protests and calls for investigations into his death, worker federation leaders have voiced their frustration that no progress has been made into the case.
A recent case at the Azim factories in Chittagong, where the factory owner has been accused of violence against Mira Boashak, president of a union at the factory, has sharpened the global debate and attention to the situation of trade unions in Bangladesh.
Boashak was reported to have been beaten with iron rods, causing a severe head injury that required more than a dozen stitches. There was a second attack at the same factory in November, and the employer has reportedly stated that the quarrel was between the union and workers, not between the factory owner and workers.
Meanwhile, showing the quick link between the local and the global, United Students Against Sweatshops has been gathering signatories in a petition to ask PVH Corp., which owns the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, to cut ties with the Azim Group. They want the company to respond immediately to the violence against union leaders in Bangladesh garment factories.
Asking “who is the culprit behind these horrific assaults,” the students demand an answer from the factory owners of the Azim Group. An investigation into the situation is already under way by VF Corp., which owns brands such as Nautica, Lee and JanSport. VF has given Azim until Wednesday to complete the investigation and to give assurances there will be no further violence.
Faced with the criticism, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association told WWD that it was further investigating the case, but claimed a preliminary investigation had revealed that the altercation had taken place “between workers” and was “outside the premises of the factory.”
BGMEA officials are also quick to point out that, in general, factory owners are “not bigoted and violent people who hate trade unions.”
“We have no quarrel with labor unions,” said Atiqul Islam, president of BGMEA. “But what is important to understand is that many of these unions are led by politics. These unions who come and break down factories and throw stones…they are not led by normal workers. They would not stone a place that feeds them and where they find work. Unions that are led by hostile elements from outside — we object to that.”
Several factory owners have voiced concern that “irresponsible” unions could be fatal to the $25 billion export garment industry in Bangladesh.
Abdur Razzak Sattar, managing director of the Utah Group, which has more than 12,500 workers, explained: “If you look at the protests over the last year and the attacks on factories by alleged groups of workers, it is obvious that these are not just worker groups who are attacking factories.”
Bridging this gap, and overcoming a situation of mistrust, has become an important area of focus.
At a panel discussion in Dhaka earlier this month, Wajedul Islam Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Trade Union Centre, urged employers “not to consider workers as enemies.” Instead, he said that the “role of workers and trade unions should be clearly spelled out.”
The International Labour Organization, the U.N. agency that focuses on human and labor rights, has been playing an active role in this mediation, especially after the collapse of Rana Plaza, and taking note of the dramatic growth in worker unions over the past year.
“This is a staggering growth compared to registration figures for the preceding years,” said Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, deputy director general for Field Operations and Partnerships of the ILO. “The formation and registration of new trade unions is a sign of a new era of collective bargaining and freedom of association in Bangladesh, which can act as a catalyst for change in other industries.”
Training the union leaders has been part of this change. In October, the ILO held a three-day training workshop.
Srinivas Reddy, the ILO’s country director for Bangladesh, spoke on the panel about the growing momentum over the last year and the changing trend. “We’re seeing more women — particularly younger women — coming forward to be leaders. They are finding ways to represent the workers, but they also need support to go on to the next level, to be able to sit with employers and negotiate and to foster an understanding,” he said.