Despite improvement in establishing workers’ rights since the horrific Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, the garment sector of Bangladesh still has a long way to go in ensuring workers' rights.
Rights groups and trade union leaders say the key barriers to instituting workers’ rights are the factory owners’ generally negative attitude towards unionism, lack of trust between factory owners and workers, and the workers’ lack of knowledge regarding their rights.
The outcry over the general disregard for workers’ rights became particularly vehement after the eight-storey building on the outskirts of Dhaka, which housed five RMG factories, collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing at least 1,135 people and injuring more than 2,500 others, most of whom were RMG workers.
Rights activists and experts said the incident – the worst man-made industrial disaster in the country’s history – could have been averted if there were trade unions in the factories where workers could voice their concerns regarding workplace safety.
Trade union registration has significantly increased since the collapse, but many workers still claim that it is not enough – leaders are still facing trouble in forming unions at factories.
According to the Joint Directorate of Labour (JDL), a total of 433 trade unions have been registered in the RMG industry since 2013, of which 353 are in Dhaka division-based factories and 80 in Chittagong.
As of February 2017, the number of RMG trade unions stands at 571.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Nazma Akter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, said there was a deep mistrust between RMG workers and factory owners over trade unionism.
“Moreover, the workers are not aware of their rights under the country’s law; nor are the union leaders. They do not have enough knowledge about the registration procedure either. This lack of knowledge makes collective bargaining a lot more difficult than it should be,” she added.
Sirajul Islam Rony, president of Bangladesh National Garments Workers and Employees League, said an effective union was important for ensuring workers’ rights.
“Functional trade union is a must-have in the process of ensuring workers’ rights. But it is difficult to establish such a system when workers’ movement is being directed by foreign regulators. As a result, alleviating the hostility between workers and factory owners has become all the more difficult,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
If the unions run following all the rules, factory owners should make sure to provide support to the union leaders and workers, he added.
Srinivas B Reddy, country director of International Labour Organisation in Bangladesh, said trade unions play an important role in protecting workers rights.
“Any increase in the number of trade unions is a positive sign regarding workers’ rights. But it is estimated that only 4% of RMG workers are union members.”
According to the labour law, a trade union must have representation of at least 30% of workers in a factory in order to be eligible for registration.
“There is a widespread distrust between employers and trade unions in Bangladesh. Such negative attitudes pose barriers to the formation of new unions and for existing labour unions to operate effectively,” Reddy said.
Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, said the RMG sector has seen a hike in the number of registered unions following the Rana Plaza collapse, but whether those unions are functional remains to be seen.
“The government has to make sure that workers do not face any trouble for being involved in unions, and stern action is taken against the factory owners who violate the law,” he added.
Rights activists and union leaders also complained about the slow and complicated registration process, but Senior Labour and Employment Secretary Mikail Shipar said the government was trying to mitigate the problem.
“The government is going to introduce a standard operational method with a time frame so workers can get registered in a shorter period of time,” he said.
He also said many applications for registration get rejected due to the workers’ migration to different factories which takes place quite frequently.
Meanwhile, Mahmud Hasan Khan Babu, vice-president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association (BGMEA) believes that most workers are not interested in trade unions in the first place.
“I think workers are not interested in trade union. If they were, after signing to be a member of a trade union in one factory, they would not migrate to another. Getting 30% worker representation in a trade union should not be difficult if they are willing to be a part of it,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
Nazma Akter said the stakeholders should focus on how the dispute between factory owners and workers can be resolved through negotiation.
“Some trade union leaders do not raise their voice in front of the factory owners, but they complain about problems to the foreign agencies. This is making this situation worse. We should resolve our problems by ourselves, instead of being dependent on a third party,” she added.