As garment factories shut down in Bangladesh during the novel coronavirus pandemic, leaving workers without wages or access to support services, unions and Worker Community Associations (WCAs) around the country rapidly shifted to address the crisis, with Worker Community Centers (WCC) serving as a lifeline for workers, their families and their communities.
The community associations and centers are part of an ongoing USAID-funded Solidarity Center Workers’ Empowerment and Participation project (WEP) launched in 2019 to improve working conditions for workers in the ready-made garment and shrimp and fish processing sectors in Bangladesh. The project builds on the strong foundation WEP established between 2015 and 2019.
In July, the Solidarity Center delivered 30,000 COVID-19 awareness leaflets to its partners in Dhaka and nearby Ashulia, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Savar; as well as Chattogram, Jashore and Khulna. The pamphlets, distributed to thousands of workers and community members by WCC coordinators and union federation organizers, highlight key safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as proper hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks at all times when outside the home.
“It’s important for us to do our part to get accurate information to everyone in the community to help stop the spread of this deadly virus,” says Rita Saha, WCC coordinator in Rupsha. “Our WCC leaders and members have extensive networks, and we love raising awareness and helping our community.”
Ensuring Fair Wages, Decent Working Conditions
When AFCO garment factory closed during COVID-19, workers received unpaid wages due to their union’s efforts. Credit: Solidarity Center
Even as WCCs and unions distributed resources, including food baskets to families of furloughed garment workers during Ramadan, they carried on the crucial work of ensuring workers receive fair pay during factory shutdowns.
As AFCO Abedin Garments Ltd. got set to permanently close in April without paying workers’ back wages, the Garments Workers Solidarity Federation (GWSF) launched negotiations with management and encouraged the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to intervene. Ultimately, factory management agreed to pay the workers 60 percent of their April salary, one month’s base salary and 60 percent of the base wage for each full year of service. Eligible workers also will receive seven days’ annual leave.
In June, Hop Lun Apparels Ltd., Sammilito Sramik Union (HLALSSU) successfully negotiated a 24-point collective bargaining agreement with factory management covering more than 2,000 workers.
Union members at Hop Lun garment factory negotiated a contract that addresses gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center
“When we submitted demands and negotiated with management, we gave special emphasis on the issues of women,” says Aklima, factory union president. “The guarantee of promotion of women to higher posts and the establishment of sexual harassment committee will empower the women and provide safeguards against sexual abuse and harassment in our factory.”
Training, Legal Support
The Workers’ Empowerment and Participation program also carried out leadership training and legal support that included advising more than 450 workers and winning $10,835 in court for 41 workers. Additional accomplishments over the past year include:
- 27,213 workers covered by unions in more than 200 factories
- 104 women elected to leadership positions
- 2,209 new community members actively participating in Worker Community Associations
- 21 new unions and worker-driven organizations in the garment and shrimp processing sectors and 12 new garment unions registered
- 39 worker-leaders trained in achieving gender equality or women’s empowerment at public and private organizations
“The WCC training sessions helped make me more confident and brave, and have helped me understand gender-based violence and harassment,” says one woman garment worker. “This has made it easier for me to handle tough situations at my workplace and in the community.”
Find out more about the Workers Empowerment Project.
Fashion’s unpaid bills have been catastrophic for garment workers. A September report co-written by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, the WRC and the Solidarity Center’s ILAW network showed that these debts have led to mass layoffs (at least 1 million garment workers in Bangladesh, 150,000 in Cambodia), while the Clean Clothes Campaign found that millions of workers remain unpaid for the work they did at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We see desperate workers willing to accept very low wages in extremely dangerous conditions, with no serious health and safety protections, let alone social distancing measures or personal protective equipment,” said Jon Hartough, Solidarity Center Bangladesh program director. When Bangladesh reopened hundreds of garment factories in April, thousands of desperate workers flocked back to overcrowded industrial areas, including the capital of Dhaka, which currently has the bulk of the country’s reported coronavirus infections.
After hundreds of laid-off garment workers took to the streets of Ashulia, Bangladesh, and rallied at the Dhaka Export Processing Zone in recent weeks, factory management and the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority agreed to compensate them with one month’s wages and the annual Eid festival bonus.
Maksuda: “When we united together, management had no choice.” Credit: Shumon Ali
Because all 130 retrenched workers had worked at the factory less than a year, the company was not required by law to provide them with compensation after they were laid off. Yet all the workers received between $150 and $315, a major achievement that Maksuda, one of the factory workers who took part in the action, says resulted from unity and collective action.
“I did not think we would get it, but when we united together management had no other choice. I am quite happy with the money I have received.”
The Talisman Limited factory workers are among tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers who have lost their jobs because of declining clothing orders worldwide following outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government reports that 29,369 garment workers have been laid off, but union leaders say the numbers are much higher.
Garment Workers Stand Together to Win Pay after Country-wide Layoffs
Workers and unions have been taking action at factories around the country in response to layoffs, and in many cases have blocked traffic or halted work to have their demands met. Overall, Bangladesh has lost more than $3.18 billion in orders since April and the start of COVID-19, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association.
Maksuda, like the other retrenched factory workers, received her layoff notice by text message. Desperate to support her family, she joined with Farida, Tania and 11 other laid-off garment workers to contact the Solidarity Center for assistance.
The Solidarity Center legal team advised each worker to seek one month’s basic pay as compensation, along with a festival bonus. The next day, the leaders organized all the retrenched workers and went to the factory, but they found the factory gates locked and no management in sight, so they proceeded to the Dhaka Export Processing Zone to demand payment. In the process, they set an example of the concrete gains collective action can achieve.
Talisman Limited employs some 1,200 workers, at least 70 percent of whom are women.
Underscoring the immediate risk of severe climate-induced weather events in South Asia, Cyclone Amphan last month slammed into the coast of eastern India and southern Bangladesh, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 88 people. A new Solidarity Center report points to other, longer-term risks for workers in the region as a result of climate change, including forced job changes and migration, and increased economic vulnerability.
As many as one in every seven–or at least 16 million—people in Bangladesh could be on the move by 2050, potentially causing the largest forced migration caused by climate change in human history. Bangladesh is one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, at risk from climate disasters such as floods and cyclones. Situated on a floodplain, with a low-lying coastline and a host of rivers, the country and its people are threatened by rising sea levels, flooding, riverbank erosion, cyclones, storm surges and ever-hotter summers. These phenomena are exacerbated by climate change and contribute to loss of livelihoods, migration and poverty.
Against this backdrop, the Solidarity Center conducted a study investigating the intersection of climate change, economic activity and migration in Khulna and Jashore, Bangladesh. The study used primary and secondary sources of data, including surveys and first-person interviews with 50 Khulna- and Jashore-based workers who were employed in shrimp and fish processing and hatcheries, transport and domestic work sectors, and returnee migrant workers.
The report finds that increased salinity and flooding has driven people of both areas into new economic activities—primarily away from previously profitable farming into poverty-wage, non-farm economic activities that study participants describe as a hand-to-mouth existence. Cross-border migration of people from Khulna and Jashore to India for better economic prospects was found to be common and recurring, with international migration growing. Workers forced to transition into new jobs were found to lack information, training and financial resources to adapt to employment changes, and were mostly relying on friends and family for information and other types of resources to find new jobs. There was a low level of understanding about climate change and how it impacts their own livelihoods and the local economy.
“Climate change is forcing already-vulnerable people into often exploitative, precarious and poorly paid work, including migrating abroad for unsafe jobs where their rights are often unprotected,” says Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Sonia Mistry.
The report offers recommendations to mitigate the impact of climate change on workers in the region, including raising awareness among residents about the impact of climate change; devising strategies to recover bodies of water and develop equitable and sustainable land-use solutions; providing skills training for workers; and reducing wage discrimination between women and men.