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‘Trade unions are only strong if they are well-equipped’

  • Published at 12:52 am April 21st, 2017
  • Last updated at 11:24 pm April 23rd, 2017
‘Trade unions are only strong if  they are well-equipped’
What is the Academy of Work and what is it aimed at? The Academy of Work (AoW) is a three-month academic programme for mid-level trade unionists. It is the very first initiative in Bangladesh that enables emerging young leaders from the trade union movement to participate in an intensive cross-sector training programme in the field of industrial relations, economy and the decent work in the global supply chain in their very own language. The content and modules of the AoW have been developed in close collaboration with Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, Brac Institute of Governance and Development and Brac University during the last 12 months. The modules cover subjects such as the history of unions, workers’ rights, social economic policies, trade and globalisation, and management and organisation. All modules combine both theory and practice as well as the local and global dimension. In the long run, the academy will strengthen the unions and also foster a social dialogue between unions and employers’ associations. The 16 fellows selected for the programme come from various industries: RMG, construction and transport, as well as the public sector. All participants were selected through a multi-stake selection process. How was the idea developed, and how is the FES a part of it? The idea for the AoW originated from the trade union movement itself. Since the Rana Plaza tragedy, there have been many initiatives to strengthen the trade union movement in Bangladesh. However, most of those were short-term training programmes even though the trade unionists demanded a more comprehensive programme that would combine local topics, workers’ rights, trade union history, Bangladesh’s economic situation, etc. They seek an understanding of a globalised world and equip them with the necessary knowledge to strengthen their own movement and thereby support both economic growth and decent work in Bangladesh. With a long history going back to 1925 and having its roots in the German and international labour movement, the FES has worked on both socio-political and economic development in more than 100 countries. These roots connect us to topics such as decent work, industrial relations and the search for a socially just and sustainable economic model. The idea of AoW lies at the very heart of FES’ work worldwide. The AoW complements our work in Bangladesh, which officially started in 2014. Since the very beginning, our work aimed at strengthening the trade union movement, to support a functioning social dialogue and partnership and to facilitate inclusive dialogues and an economic model which combine decent work and economic growth. We have the impression that the AoW will address all these topics successfully and is therefore a unique programme in Bangladesh and in the global South. You visited Bangladesh in 2014, one year after the Rana Plaza tragedy. What is your impression this time? Yes, I came here in 2014 for the inauguration of the FES office in Dhaka. Since then, I have wanted to come back. From my understanding after the crisis in 2013, there have been major improvements in the area of health and security. Quite important were initiatives like Accord, a legally binding agreement between companies, NGOs and unions that assures more industrial safety/worker protection in the textile factories. The Accord has provided an unprecedented transparency and is a best-practice example for other countries. The improvements, however, are limited to the export-oriented RMG sector. They have not been implemented to the same degree in the local textile market. The same applies to other industrial areas, such as leather. There are various other fields that must be improved, such as the freedom of association and collective bargaining. Also, the social dialogue and the so-called tripartite dialogue, which brings together unions, employers and the government, are still insufficient. Development like the protests in Ashulia have clearly underlined that. The FES Bangladesh has conducted a study examining the situation of the tripartite committee in the RMG industries which provides a good overview as well as suggestions on how a social dialogue can be structured more efficiently. Instead of the often spontaneously launched bodies and committees in times of crises, we need a proactive, democratic, structured, long-term dialogues between employers and employees to strengthen the employees’ rights in the long run. The mandate of the committee must be clearly defined as well. You have underlined the need for a social dialogue. How can the AoW contribute to that? A functioning social dialogue relies on strong unions. Unions are only strong if they are well-equipped both internally and externally. This is where the AoW comes in. It enables access to expert knowledge as well as hands-on exercises in the area of management and organisation. In addition, the three-month training allows an intensive dialogue between unions across sectors. Such a unique space for communication strengthens the collaboration inside the labour movement. The AoW also benefits from the employers’ and government’s expertise as actors from both the sectors will be involved in various sessions. This will foster a better dialogue between unions, employers and the government. Given the adverse circumstances, how can trade unions effectively function in Bangladesh? The cooperation and solidarity between unions is crucial. This is not limited to the activities within one area. Similar to the social dialogue, unions must work together across sectors. Furthermore, trade unions must become experts in their own fields. They must challenge the public opinion that they are the ones who are harmful for the economy. They should be the actors who provide knowledge and expertise, and identify ways on how an economic model combining economic growth and decent work can strengthen Bangladesh in an ever-increasing globalised world. Around 60% of Bangladesh’s RMG exports go to the EU. How is the AoW addressing the connection between workers’ rights and western consumption in an increasingly globalised world? I strongly believe that the concept of the AoW – focusing on globalisation, due diligence and global supply chains – comes at the very right moment. Speaking on behalf of the FES, I think it is time to discuss the responsibility along the global supply chain, thus automatically about the responsibility of countries such as Germany. Decent work and economic growth in countries like Bangladesh can only be assured when all stakeholders work together and when countries like Germany, including the brands and buyers, do their homework. The discussion on the compliance with workers’ rights can and must not take place only in Bangladesh and other countries that are known for their huge production sector. Globally, Bangladesh is the second largest export country. Bangladesh exports to Germany amount to $4.3 million and various German brands produce their products in Bangladesh. This underlines the fact that Germany and Europe are directly connected to more than four million workers in the textile sector and carry responsibilities for the compliance with core labour standards. Important initiatives and tools have been launched in Europe in recent months, which strengthen the responsibility throughout the global value chain and are more binding for companies, brands and governments in Europe. The OECD guidelines, the combination of trade policies with social standards as well as the French law on due diligence are just some examples. The AoW supports unionists in getting to know these instruments and to discuss them in the broader context of economic, social and trade policies. If these tools are meant to contribute to the workers’ rights as well as the overall well-being of Bangladesh’s economy, it is inevitable for the local unions to also become part of the international discussion. What is the long-term goal of AoW in Bangladesh? I am happy to announce that we plan to have a new cohort of fellows every year. From the very first year on, we will establish an alumni programme which will support the participants to become multipliers in their expert communities.
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