When Rafikul Islam, 25, president of a workers’ welfare association at a factory in the Dhaka export processing zone (EPZ) heard that one of the top factory officials harassed the female staff member responsible for the factory’s day care center, he took action.
“We called a meeting of our association and decided that we would protest this incident and write to the authorities to take action against the official,” Rafikul says. After they lodged a complaint, the official was terminated.
“This was possible because we were united. We never imagined such immediate action when there was no union in the EPZ.” Rafikul said there were similar incidents in other factories in the past but the victims did not get justice.
Despite obstacles, workers’ welfare associations are gaining ground in factories throughout Bangladesh’s export processing zones. Bangladesh derives 20 percent of its income from exports created in the EPZs, which are industrial areas that offer special incentives to foreign investors like low taxes, lax environmental regulations and low labor costs. Some 377,600 workers, the vast majority women, work in 497 factories in Bangladesh’s eight EPZs.
EPZ workers had long been denied the freedom to form unions, but in 2010, a law passed enabling workers to form unions under a different name—workers’ welfare associations. Associations are permitted to represent workers on disputes and grievances, negotiate collective bargaining contracts and collect membership dues. Now in the Dhaka EPZ alone, 40 of the 103 factories include workers welfare associations.
But unlike traditional unions, the associations cannot interact nor affiliate with any labor union, nongovernmental organization or political organization outside the EPZ. Associations can only form a federation within one zone.
Kholilur Rahman, 20, general secretary of an association of another factory in the Dhaka EPZ says that after forming an association, workers became aware of their legal rights.
“Most of the workers in our factories were contractual workers,” he says. “Authorities did that purposefully to deprive us from receiving benefits. But after forming the association, the factory management made us permanent,” Kholilur said.
Oliur Rahman, a member of an association in the Dhaka EPZ, says that in the past, managers terminated them for trivial reasons.
“But this is not the case after we formed an association and voted for our association and elected the officers for our workers’ welfare association,” he said.
Garment workers and workers in other industries in Bangladesh’s export-processing zones are subject to a different, much weaker set of labor laws than workers in the rest of the country, and the government must take steps to reform laws so they meet international standards for freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, said A. K. M. Nasim, senior legal counselor at the Solidarity Center’s office in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. Further, “if we have any half-hearted reform in the legislation, it will mean that the workers will have to continue their struggle for a period of at least a generation to achieve these fundamental rights.”
Speaking at a recent forum in Washington, D.C., Nasim gave an overview of the current labor rights environment for Bangladeshis and provided key recommendations for improving their wages and working conditions.
Some 377,600 workers, the vast majority women, work in eight export-processing zones (EPZs) throughout the country.
Bangladesh derives 20 percent of its income from exports created in the EPZs, which are industrial areas that offer special incentives to foreign investors like low taxes, lax environmental regulations and low labor costs.
Yet while workers outside the EPZs are permitted to form trade unions, EPZ workers must form weaker workers’ welfare associations. Even though the associations have the right to bargain and negotiate agreements with employers, in practice, employers do not let the workers form their associations easily. Leaders of workers’ associations who actively promote the interests of the employees “have been fired from their jobs,” Nasim said. “As a result, most of the workers’ associations in the EPZs remain in existence only on paper.”
Nasim discussed the decision last June by the U.S. government to suspend Bangladesh’s trade benefits based on the country’s chronic and severe labor rights violations. The United States suspended its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) agreement with Bangladesh after 112 workers were killed in a 2012 fire at the Tazreen garment factory, and more than 1,100 died last April when the Rana Plaza building collapsed. Since the GSP suspension, the Bangladesh government has allowed some 100 unions to register, in contrast with the few unions recognized prior to last year.
The Rana Plaza disaster also led to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year binding agreement between international labor organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and retailers in the textile industry to maintain minimum safety standards. The tragedies also have generated an increase in NGO involvement, and Nasim urged the NGOs working to improve workplace safety and health to support workers in forming and running unions, and making sure they are sustainable in the long run.
Also speaking at the forum, Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan showed how the economic and political intersect in the Bangladesh context as described by Nasim.
“Bangladesh is a crucible for the intersection of globalization, the government’s economic policies, how these impact on the development of a democratic culture in civil society, and equitable and just economic growth that benefits workers and their families,” Ryan said. “A voice for workers in this process is absolutely crucial for growing democracy and democratic organizations in Bangladesh.”
The forum, “Strengthening Democratic Practices in Bangladesh: Empowering Workers in Export Processing Zones,” was sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy and included Zerxes Spencer from the International Forum for Democratic Studies as moderator.