“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.
More than 2,000 garment workers in Bangladesh are celebrating a new collective bargaining agreement that includes a 10 percent pay increase—double the amount required by law—and creation of a committee to prevent violence and harassment on the job. The pact, negotiated by the Hop Lun Apparels Ltd. Sommilito Sramik Union (HLALSSU), is retroactive to January.
The new agreement comes as many garment workers in Bangladesh and around the world are being laid off without pay because major fashion brands are canceling orders due to lack of demand during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
2,000+ Bangladesh garment workers have new contract that includes a 10 percent wage increase and a day care facility for their children. Credit: SGSF
“The guarantee of promotions for women to the higher posts and the establishment of the sexual harassment committee will empower the women and provide safeguards against sexual abuse and harassment in our factory,” says Aklima HLALSSU president.
Under the new contract, Hop Lun will set up a day care facility for workers’ children younger than age six, who will be guaranteed quality care and education. Factory management will provide free ultrasound tests for all pregnant workers, subsided food in the factory canteen, and guarantee a minimum of 20 women workers will be promoted annually.
Under Bangladesh law, women workers are entitled to 16 weeks’ maternity leave, yet employers often do not grant garment workers the required leave. The new contract provides enforcement of the law.
“It is because we have a strong union that we could maintain a good relation with the factory management and sign this collective bargaining agreement,” says Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) General Secretary Nahidul Hasan Nayan. “That is why, during this COVID-19 crisis, Hop Lun factory maintained the highest standard of safety for its workers and has provided each and every employee with proper protective equipment.”
The contract also includes provisions to streamline union representation, with the employer providing space for a union office and automatically deducting union dues. Union leaders will be involved in trainings and workshops and joint meetings with management.
The COVID-19 crisis is especially devastating for the 50 million workers who make clothes, shoes and textiles in factories around the world. With declining sales, corporate retailers are canceling orders and factories are laying off workers, most without pay. Those forced to work often must do so in unsafe factories to support themselves and their families. The majority of garment workers are women who are their family’s primary wage earner.
But through their unions, tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh are successfully standing up to employers to ensure they are paid during plant closures and have proper protective equipment if they must report to work.
In Gazipur, factory-level unions and worker union leaders representing 10,000 garment workers at Hop Lun Ltd. factories negotiated key pay and safety measures. Workers will receive their full month’s salary for March as the factory closes from March 26–April 5 during the government lockdown. When they are back on the job, they will have access to hotlines to call if they are ill and need guidance. The phone numbers of the union president and top management also are available so workers can directly access assistance in case of emergency.
The Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) union had recently negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with Hop Lun Ltd. factories that includes a 10 percent annual pay increase.
At Natural Denims Ltd., where some 8,200 workers signed a collective bargaining agreement in January, SGSF worked with factory management to ensure workers receive their full pay during the factory closure. Management also has established a 10-member committee of union members and management volunteers who will assist workers who become ill or face any emergency during the closure, and are developing plans to address worker safety in coming months.