When 1,300 Bangladeshi garment workers started to organize a trade union at their factory in the Gazipur suburb of Dhaka, the capital, they faced an uphill battle.
However, with assistance from their union federation, the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Federation (BIGUF) and the Solidarity Center, and by working to develop a constructive relationship with their employer, Masco Cotton, both sides have been able to sit down and negotiate and resolve issues in the factory. And the dynamics have changed.
“I am very happy that we have established a good relationship with our employer, but it hasn’t been a smooth path,” said Faruk, president of the Masco Cotton Ltd. Workers Union. “At first, I was suspended along with three other workers for trade union activity, and it was two and a half months before we were reinstated.”
Faruk continued, “It took a lot of hard work for us to make the employer understand our problems. The training we received from BIGUF helped a lot. They trained us how to talk to and negotiate with the management.”
Sanjida Akhter, worker and president of Masco Industries Ltd. Workers Unity Union (one of the three union factories affiliated with BIGUF in the five-factory group) said, “Before we formed a union in our factory, (the workers) had no way to communicate with our employer. But now things are different. Management will even approach the union to work out and discuss issues in the factory.”
Through the process of negotiation, workers in the union factories have bargained with their employer to ensure they receive their salaries on time, and to increase attendance and other bonuses as well as night-shift differentials. The unions and management now meet monthly to discuss routine labor disputes and other issues. For example, they met most recently to negotiate leave for the religious holiday Eid and to increase the number of fans on the factory floor.
“Though the workers now have built a much more positive relationship with the employer, initially we had some serious challenges,” said Raju, acting general secretary of BIGUF. He said that despite some workers losing their jobs and one of the union applications being rejected three times before it was registered by the Joint Director of Labor (JDL), they worked hard to demonstrate to the employer that worker empowerment through a trade union could be beneficial for the factory overall if both sides sat down and negotiated.
Mahbubul Alam, executive director of the Masco factory group said, “There is a prevailing negative opinion about trade unions among employers … but it can be beneficial for both the workers and the employer when we work with the unions. If we want to ensure harmony in the factory, we need to maintain a good relationship with workers—and we took this on as a challenge. If we can do it, we can be an example to other RMG (ready-made garment) factories in Bangladesh.”
Mahbubul says that training for both the management and the union can play an important role in developing a constructive relationship and maintaining industrial peace.
“The potential benefit of having a union in the factory is that we hear the voice of all the workers. Management can then understand the workers’ issues and work to solve those problems,” he said.