Women around the world work make up the vast majority of workers in dangerous, difficult and low-paid jobs—and in Bangladesh, garment workers, the majority of whom are women, often risk their lives for a chance to support themselves and their families. More than 1,100 workers were killed in the most recent garment factory disaster when the eight-story Rana Plaza building collapsed in April.
Morium Akter Sheuli, elected this year as general secretary of the 100,000+ member Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF), was 9 years old when she began work in a garment factory. At age 14, she began organizing co-workers to gain a collective voice on the job to improve workplace safety and wages.
Bangladesh has “more than 4 million garment workers, of which 80 percent are women (and) almost 70 percent of all women employment in the nation’s manufacturing sectors,” said Morium. She spoke last week in in São Paulo, Brazil, during a July 30-31 Solidarity Center conference, “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain.”
Although garment exports account for 75 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, workers in the country’s 5,000 garment factories are paid a minimum of $38 a month while enduring dangerous and deadly workplaces.
Following the Rana Plaza tragedy and other mass deaths at Bangladesh garment factories, the United States in June suspended its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) reduced tariff benefits agreement with Bangladesh. In July, Bangladesh passed a new labor law, one that Morium says “is not enough for workers.”
“In some ways, the previous law was better than this one,” Morium said through a translator, in an interview with the Solidarity Center. “Workers are not very happy with the new law after Rana Plaza, thinking it is imposed on them.”
Although the government has made registering unions easier in recent weeks, the new labor code still does not apply to the hundreds of thousands of workers in the country’s export processing zones where a large number of garment workers are employed, according to an analysis by the AFL-CIO. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has found that current law that regulates labor relations in the zones violates core labor standards.
Like conference participants from a variety of countries, Morium, who has been actively involved in various union leadership positions and union organizing efforts, described how international support has been essential to improving women’s working conditions. She sees hope in the international Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement committing the more than 80 major corporations that signed on to funding safety and building upgrades and holding independent factory inspections.
“I think that it will be a better tool for our workers in Bangladesh,” she said.