Bilkish Begum says she and other workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh could not discuss implementing fire safety measures with their employer—even after the deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 workers three years ago next week. Only when they formed a union, which provides workers with protection against retaliation for seeking to improve their workplace conditions, could they take steps to help ensure their safety.
“Things have improved a lot regarding fire safety once we formed union as now we have the power to raise our voice,” she says.
Bilkish, 30, now a leader of a factory union affiliated with the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF), is among hundreds of garment workers who have taken part in Solidarity Center fire safety trainings this year. The Solidarity Center works with garment workers, union leaders and factory management to improve fire safety conditions in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry through such hands-on courses as the 10-week Fire and Building Safety Resource Person Certification Training.
“I used to be afraid about fire eruption in my factory,” Bilkish says. “But after attending trainings, I feel that if we work together, we can reduce risk of fire in our factory.”
Fire remains a significant hazard in Bangladesh factories. Since the Tazreen fire, some 34 workers have died and at least 985 workers have been injured in 91 fire incidents, according to data collected by Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka, the capital. Incidents resulting in injuries include at least eight false alarms.
In January, after a short-circuit caused a generator to explode at one garment factory, Osman, president of the factory union and Popi Akter, another union leader, quickly addressed the fire and calmed panicked workers using the skills they learned through the Solidarity Center fire training. They also worked with factory management to correct other safety issues, like blocked aisles and stairwells cramped with flammable material.
Many workers who have taken part in the trainings say they are equipped to handle fire accidents.
“We are now confident after the training that we can help factory management and other workers if there is any incident of fire in our factory,” says Mosammat Doli, 35, a leader of a union affiliated with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF).
“From my experience at my factory, I have seen that an effective trade union can ensure fire safety in the factory as it can raise safety concerns,” he said.
Fewer than 3 percent of the 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh have a union. And according to the International Labor Organization, 80 percent of Bangladeshi garment factories need to address fire and electrical safety standards. Yet, despite workers’ efforts to form organizations to represent them this year, the Bangladeshi government rejected more than 50 registration applications—many for unfair or arbitrary reasons—while only 61 were successful. This is in stark contrast to only two years ago, when 135 unions applied for registration and the government rejected 25 applications, and to 2014, when 273 unions applied and 66 were rejected.
Without a union, workers often are harassed or fired when they ask their employer to fix workplace safety and health conditions.
Because his workplace has a union, which enabled Doli to participate in fire safety training, he—like Osman and Popi Aktee—already has potentially saved lives. Together with other union leaders, he helped evacuate workers and extinguish a fire in their garment factory.
Shahabuddin, 25, an executive member of his factory union, which is affiliated with SGSF, is among Bangladesh garment workers who see firsthand how unions help ensure safe and healthy working conditions. He says his workplace had no fire safety equipment—until workers formed a union and collectively raised the issue of job safety.
“Now management conducts fire evacuation drills almost regularly. We did not imagine it just a few years back. As we formed union, many things started changing,” he says.
Mushfique Wadud is Solidarity Center communications officer in Bangladesh.
“You have forgotten the Tazreen fire incident but our actual suffering has just started,” says Anju, who experienced severe head, eye and other bodily injuries during the fatal Tazreen Fashions Ltd. fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 garment workers.
Survivors of the November 24, 2012, Tazreen fire who recently talked with Solidarity Center staff in Bangladesh say they endure daily physical and emotional pain and in many cases, have little or no means of financial support because they cannot work. Some, like Anju, who is unable to work, have never received compensation for their injuries.
Some 80 percent of export-oriented ready made garment (RMG) factories in Bangladesh need improvement in fire and electrical safety standards, despite a government finding most were safe, according to a recent International Labor Organization (ILO) report.
The Solidarity Center has had an on-the-ground presence in Bangladesh for more than a decade. Through Solidarity Center fire safety trainings for union leaders and workers, garment workers learn to identify and correct problems at their worksites. But fewer than 3 percent of the 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh have a union. ” Despite workers’ efforts to form unions, in 2015 alone the Bangladeshi government has rejected more than 50 registration applications—many for unfair or arbitrary reasons—while only 61 have been successful. The rejections have jumped significantly from 2014, when 273 unions applied and 66 were rejected.
So that the world does not forget, here is the story of Anju and others who survived the Tazreen fire.
Global March against Child Labor, a coalition of organizations working to end child labor that includes the Solidarity Center, created a powerful short video clip you can email, post on Facebook, Tweet and send to your networks.
Here are some sample Tweets and Facebook posts:
Tweets Global March Against Child Labor fights to end child labor! WATCH to know why are we doing this? http://bit.ly/1QeZmdu #EndChildSlavery
Global March can help you do your bit to end child labor from this world! Support us http://bit.ly/1QeZmdu #NotMadebyChildren
Facebook Posts Everything that you buy isn’t worth it! WATCH http://bit.ly/1QeZmdu #NotMadebyChildren #EndChildSlavery
1 in every 6 children work. The shirt you are wearing may be made by a child slave. WATCH http://bit.ly/1QeZmdu #EndChildSlavery
Houcine Abassi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), which shares this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, write today in The Guardian that “awarding the Nobel Prize to an organization led by the Tunisian labor movement was a recognition of the essential and potentially transformative role of labor in all of our nations.”
“Strong unions make strong democracies,” they continue. “It sounds simplistic, but each of us have experienced this fundamental premise in our nations. As labor leaders in the United States and Tunisia respectively, we know full well that when workers come together for a voice on the job, it boosts the economy, eases social unrest and creates the conditions for peace, prosperity and the protection of rights.
To be sure, we come from very different countries, each with its own set of economic and political challenges. But we have seen the healing power of unions firsthand.”
The Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), a longtime Solidarity Center partner, was at the forefront of the four organizations that recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said today. In a ceremony at the AFL-CIO honoring UGTT Secretary-General Houcine Abassi, Shuler praised Abassi’s courage and tenacity and called the UGTT’s work “inspirational to us in the United States.”
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler welcomed UGTT Secretary-General Houcine Abassi in a ceremony honoring his work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Conradt
In his remarks, Abassi said “the Nobel Prize is not given just to us, but to all the labor movements in the world.” The award “sends a message that unions can play an equal role in government, in social dialogue … and many times can provide critical leadership.” Abassi is in Washington, D.C., this week to receive the Fairness Award presented by the Global Fairness Initiative. Solidarity Center ally Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, is a co-recipient of the award.
In October, the Nobel Committee recognized the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—comprised of the (UGTT); the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers—for establishing “an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”
Abassi described the many hours of dialogue in the months after the 2011 Arab uprising deposed longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in a period of economic and political uncertainty. As a key participant in the discussions, the UGTT succeeded in including collective bargaining rights and the right to strike in the country’s new constitution, which Tunisians approved in 2014. Through the UGTT’s efforts, the constitution also enshrines many more fundamental social and economic rights for Tunisians.
The Tunisian union movement has been in the forefront of the struggle for democracy and social equality since its formation in 1946. Following the country’s independence from colonial rule in 1956, the organization played a key role in establishing a road map for national development that made Tunisia the most advanced economy in the Arab Maghreb.
In the months after the 2011 uprising, the UGTT employed direct action when mass mobilization was needed to shore up democratic principles like women’s rights and freedom of speech, all top priorities for Tunisian unions.
“Ever since its founding, the UGTT went very much beyond the traditional role of labor unions,” pushing for freedom and democracy and inclusive participation of all civil society in governance, Abassi said.
This is the second consecutive year that worker rights activists and Solidarity Center allies have been honored with a Nobel Peace Prize. Last year Kailash Satyarthi, head of the Global March against Child Labor, shared the prize with girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai.
In 2012, the UGTT received the AFL-CIO’s 2012 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award along with the labor federation of Bahrain, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, for their mobilization of thousands of people in their countries to carry forward a message of social justice during the 2011 uprisings.
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