They blamed political influence and owners’ affiliation for the ineffectiveness of the trade unions
Safety standards in the country’s apparel sector improved significantly in the last six years after the horrific Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, so did the trade union registration but workers’ rights are yet to see any functional improvements.
Trade union leaders made the observation while talking to Dhaka Tribune on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the factory disaster that called the standards of workers’ rights and workplace safety in Bangladesh in question.
They blamed political influence and owners’ affiliation for the ineffectiveness of the trade unions, which nevertheless witnessed an increase in their numbers.
According to the Joint Directorate of Labour (JDL), a total of 594 trade unions have got registered in the RMG industry since 2013, of which 494 are in Dhaka division-based factories while 100 in Chittagong.
In the year 2018, a total of 82 trade unions — 75 from Dhaka zone and 7 from Chittagong — got registered.
“It is very unfortunate that the workers still face termination for showing interest in unionism or joining the trade unions,” Kazi Ruhul Amin, executive president of Garment Workers' Trade Union Centre, told the Dhaka Tribune
During February-March of the current year, nine workers of Top Jeans Limited were sacked for their involvement in forming trade union at the factory, Ruhul claimed.
So there was no guarantee that the growing number of trade unions would ensure the rights of workers to raising their voice against safety issues, workers’ harassment or realizing dues in case of retirement or termination, said the trade union leader.
Ruhul also said most of the trade unions which got registered were affiliated either with the government or backed by the owners.
After the factory disaster, the number of registered unions saw sharp rise, he admitted, raising question as to if they were functional or not.
“So, the workers are being deprived of their rights in collective bargaining,” he stated.
However, the apparel sector people think that they are working to build trust and ensure wellbeing of the workers.
“If the trade unions’ target is the wellbeing the workers, the union’s main duty is to improve the relationship between workers and owners,” Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association president Rubana Huq told the Dhaka Tribune.
“We are working on building the trust and establishing a good relationship,” assured Huq, urging all to give up blame game and work together.
Workers are deprived for lack of trade unions
Trade union leaders, however, observe that for absence of effective trade union in the sector, the workers could not ensure their expected salary in the latest wage structure.
“If we look at the latest wage structure, there was failure on the part of trade union representatives in realizing the proper wage hike. As a result, there was unrest and later the government was compelled to revise the wage structure,” a trade union leader told the Dhaka Tribune, seeking anonymity.
If the workers’ representative could play due role in negotiation, the wage amount in the wage structure could be better, he claimed.
He also urged the government to give registration to trade unions regardless of political identity of the federation under which it would be applying for registration or the person behind the scene.
Owners’ attitude and workers’ knowledge key to ensuring rights
In making workers more active in realizing their rights and getting them involved in collective bargaining, workers have to learn about their rights. On the other hand, the owners have to have a positive attitude towards unionism.
“In the country’s apparel sector, the workers are not aware of their rights under the country’s law. Lack of proper knowledge creates problems and makes collective bargaining more difficult,” Nazma Akter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, told the Dhaka Tribune.
Moreover, there was a lack of positive attitude towards the trade unions among the factory owners, which created mistrust between the workers and owners, said Nazma.
So to ensure workers’ rights, stakeholders must arrange training to make both the sides aware and the factory owners should change their attitude, she added.