Sun, Apr 08, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Women lead the push for rights
in Bangladesh
fashion factories

Five years after the Rana Plaza complex collapsed and killed 1,100 people, one of the region’s strongest movements to protect workers has emerged, but the task ahead is not an easy one

By Anuradha Nagaraj  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, DHAKA

Illustration: June Hsu

When Ayesha Akhter walks into the factory where she works, the supervisor greets her with a smile and wishes her a pleasant day — a major change after years of physical and verbal abuse from managers in Bangladesh’s US$28 billion garment industry.

The seamstress said it is her biggest victory since in October being elected president of the workers’ union at Jeans Factory Limited in Dhaka, amid a push to improve conditions across the global fashion supply chain.

“In all these years, I have heard supervisors yell, verbally abuse, call us prostitutes and slap us behind our heads to work faster,” said Akhter, who spends eight hours a day stitching pockets on jeans and shorts.

“Then I became the union president and everything changed. Overnight, I became important,” she said.

Akhter, 28, is among scores of women in Bangladesh standing up to head unions and negotiate with male-dominated management for more pay, safer workplaces and respect on the job.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest garment exporter with about 4 million people working in its more than 4,000 factories, nearly 80 percent of them women, campaigners say.

Poor working conditions and low wages have long been a concern in the sector, which suffered a terrible industrial accident in 2013, when more than 1,100 people were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex.

Garment factory workers attempting to set up unions have encountered resistance across the region, with many losing their jobs or being suspended by managements that fear the power of unions, leaders said.

“Freedom of association and collective bargaining are the biggest challenges the industry faces today,” said Nazma Akter, a former child worker and founder of Awaj Foundation, which campaigns for labor rights.

“Without that power, workers are just surviving, not leading normal lives, and it’s almost a crime,” Akter said.

Five years after the Rana Plaza collapse, one of the region’s strongest movements to organize workers and help them exercise collective bargaining has emerged — led by Bengali women.

The number of registered unions in Bangladesh has increased about fivefold to nearly 500 since 2013, said Jennifer Kuhlman of US-based workers’ rights charity Solidarity Center.

“Many of them are being headed by young, dynamic women who are choosing to lead from the front to bring about change,” said Kuhlman, who heads its Bangladesh programs.

Campaigners estimate that women make up about half of the new factory union leaders.

Although women said their newfound union power had opened their eyes to their rights — from social security benefits to overtime — they fear losing their jobs.

Akhter remembers the “big fight” she had with her husband when she said she was considering standing for president.

“He was mad and upset and clearly told me not to,” said the mother of two. “He was scared and worried about my safety. He relented, but we always worry because of what we see and hear.”

It was easy to unionize immediately after the Rana Plaza disaster, but activists are now being harassed, workers fired and union meetings disrupted, said Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, which supports workers across 52 unionized factories.

“It is difficult and workers are facing a tough time,” he said.

The government cracked down on unions after garment workers in Ashulia, a suburb outside Dhaka, protested the death of a coworker and demanded more wages in December 2016, campaigners said.

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