Five years after the deadly Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, workers and union activists say despite the massive demand from workers for union representation to achieve safe workplaces, worker-organizers must face down threats, harassment and violence to educate workers about their rights on the job.
Shamima Aktar is among Bangladesh garment worker-organizers empowering workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mugfiq Tajwar
Since the April 24, 2013, tragedy in which more than 1,130 garment workers died and thousands were injured, the government has approved a little more than half of the garment unions that have applied for official registration, according to Solidarity Center data. Confronted with employers and a government hostile to worker organizations, worker-organizers have sometimes risked their lives to help workers improve wages and working conditions.
Shamima Aktar, a garment factory worker and organizer with Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), is one of them. During a meeting with management at a newly unionized factory, managers refused to grant a demand made by the factory union that salaries be paid on a timely basis. Instead, Shamima and the other union representatives were locked in the building and beaten, she says.
“But what moved me was that hearing about our abuse, 17 trade unions around the community immediately came to our aid and barricaded the whole factory which we were in. The workers needed us on their side to be able to live in peace and I wish to [keep organizing] no matter how difficult it is for me,” she says.
Through persistence and courage in the face of daunting odds, worker-organizers have helped garment workers form unions despite the severe obstacles. In Bangladesh, more than 200,000 garment workers at 445 factories are represented by unions that protect their rights on the job.
“I have worked day and night, went to gates of factories to talk to the workers, walked with them to their homes to earn their trust and to make them aware of how they are being exploited and deprived of their rights,” says Monira Aktar, an organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF). “So far, we have united 2,250 workers into trade unions, and they say that we give them courage and hope. For me, these words are enough to encourage me to work on for them.”
Poverty Wages, Safety Improvements
Thousands of garment workers have participated in the Solidarity Center’s 10-week fire safety certification course. Credit: Solidarity Center/Rakibul Hasan
Wages in Bangladesh are the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations, even though the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Luxembourg and Montreal. The country’s labor law falls far short of international standards, and the Bangladesh government has failed to enact meaningful legal reforms, including addressing the arbitrary union registration process that is vulnerable to employer manipulation. Without a union, garment workers often are harassed or fired when they ask their employer to fix workplace safety and health conditions.
But due to international action after the Rana Plaza disaster, which occurred months after a deadly fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory killed 112 mostly female garment workers, a variety of efforts to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries due to fire or structural failures—including the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety—have remedied dangers at more than 1,600 factories.
The Solidarity Center has trained more than 6,000 union leaders and workers in fire safety, helping to empower factory-floor–level workers to monitor for hazardous working conditions and demand safety violations be corrected.
Such international attention has opened up space for workers to collectively demand—and win—improvements on the job, says Monira.
“I am proud that we have been able to create leaders among the workers by organizing them into trade unions. In the past this would have been close to impossible.”
In Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center implements the Workers’ Empowerment Program – Components 1 and 2, which provides training and rights education to garment workers and organizers, with the support of USAID.
Iztiak, an intern in the Solidarity Center Bangladesh office, interviewed the worker-organizers in Dhaka.
In Cambodia’s booming construction industry, where up to 250,000 workers toil on building projects during peak season, laborers wear sandals or flip-flops and cloth gloves, if they have gloves at all, their heads covered only with towels or soft hats they bring to work.
One-third are women, who receive lower wages and are limited to the least skilled tasks that offer no opportunities for training and advancement. These construction workers risk their lives each day on the job, scaling tall structures without harnesses, helmets or other safety equipment and often are not paid for weeks. Their wages are disproportionately lower than the wages of foreign workers. At one site, for instance, a foreign worker receives $1,000 per month with a $300 allowance while his Cambodian colleagues receive between $160 and $240 a month.
Cambodia’s construction industry is one of the fastest growing sources of employment. In 2015, construction became the most dynamic driver of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), outpacing the country’s garment and footwear industries. Corporations from China, South Korea, Japan, and Thailand—at least 18 countries in all—have directed 284 projects, a construction area nearly five square miles worth $4.3 billion, between 2000 and August 2016.
Cambodia Workers Have Little Freedom to Form Unions
The country’s lack of a labor inspection system to ensure compliance with national labor law allows employers to avoid receiving fines or other punitive measures when workers are injured on the job or are paid subminimum wages. As a result, construction workers do not have access to fundamental workplace rights like safety equipment, as stipulated in the country’s labor laws. Workers also receive little or no safety training.
“Based on a report we conducted in 2015, we discovered that more than 2,000 construction workers have been injured on construction sites,” says Yann Thy, secretary-general of Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC). “Out of this figure, 36 died.”
Yet when they seek to form unions and improve their working conditions, they often suffer retaliation, violence and imprisonment, as do garment workers and other workers across Cambodia, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
A 2016 trade union law further limits workers’ ability to negotiate over their working conditions and pay. Cambodia is now one of 10 countries ranked the worst for working people, according to the ITUC’s annual Global Rights Index.
Despite the obstacles, BWTUC, assisted by the global union, Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), the Solidarity Center and other international rights organizations, assist construction workers across Cambodia to form unions, enabling workers to break the cycle of poverty perpetuated by low-wage, dangerous jobs.
From $1 a Day to $15 a Day with a Union
Angkor Archaeological Park generates $63.6 million in ticket sales but reconstruction workers are paid as little as $1 a day. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jennifer Bogar
When tourists enter Cambodia’s massive Angkor Archaeological Park, they are greeted by stunning temples carved with intricate sculptures built for the Khmer Empire, ruler of a large portion of Southeast Asia between the ninth and 15th centuries. Spreading over 154 square miles, the complex contains hundreds of buildings and monuments that had long decayed in disrepair.
Many buildings have now been restored, and while tourists encounter ancient structures resembling their original state, they are less likely to notice the construction workers laboring in often brutally hot conditions to make tourists’ trips Facebook friendly.
As a World Heritage site, Angkor is covered by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) restoration and conservation guidelines which provide for architectural and environmental safeguards—but include no such protections for workers.
Chhen Sophal worked for years on the massive Baphuon Temple, eating little for lunch and dinner so he would have enough money to support his family.
With support of a union federation that later merged into BWTUC, and the global union movement, the workers held an official union election and ultimately negotiated with their employer, raising wages to $15 a day and securing payment in dollars, which are more easily exchangeable than the Cambodian riel. Through ongoing pressure, they also ensured their employer keep its commitments to provide health care, workplace safety improvements and full implementation of 18 days paid annual leave.
Yet Chhen Sophal, who was a union leader at the site, knows that hundreds of thousands of construction workers across Cambodia still receive below-poverty wages, and he seeks to improve conditions beyond his workplace.
“In the future, I hope that we will be able to push for a sector minimum wage for the restoration workers,” he said through a translator. “I want to stand up for wages for next generation—even outside of restoration and construction sector.” Chhen Sophal says he wants to ensure that if his children become construction or restoration workers, they will receive decent wages and their workplaces will be safe.
Dozens of day-labor farm workers (jornaleros) demanded improved wages, democratic representation, an end to sexual harassment and access to clean water as they marched across Mexico in a national caravan, “Fair Wages and Dignified Life.”
A proposed new law would make it much harder for farm workers to get compensation for job injuries. Credit: Solidarity Center/Gladys Cisneros
The workers, who left Baja California March 4 and arrived in Mexico City on March 17, sought to raise renewed awareness of their struggle for decent working conditions in the San Quintin Valley and hold employers accountable for their failure to uphold agreements reached in 2015. Although the settlement negotiated in 2015 included raising day wages to between 150 and 180 pesos (approximately $7 to $9), these wage levels have been unevenly applied.
“We are here to demand the same things we have been asking for, for two years,” says Lorenzo Rodriguez, general secretary of the SINDJA union.
Following the 2015 jornaleros strike, workers formed a national independent union that has grown to include farm workers from four Mexican states. Registering their independent union, SINDJA, is the only demand that has been met so far, say union leaders. Workers negotiated the agreement with the government, but the agribusiness owners and growers must comply.
“We don’t even have the right to live,” says farm worker leader Bonifacio Martinez. “And with proposed new government reforms, we are forbidden to get sick at work,” he adds, referring to proposed legislation that would place government and employers, not medical professionals, in charge of determining whether an injury is work-related.
A 2015 Los Angeles Times series found many workers on export-oriented farms “essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.”
The national caravan included families of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, who continue to seek answers and justice. The march coincided with the two-year anniversary of a historic 12-week strike and popular mobilization in the San Quintin Valley.
Workers at the Zestafoni Ferroalloy factory in Georgia’s Imereti region successfully negotiated a contract after five months of negotiations with their employer that includes wide-ranging workplace safety and health improvements, wage increases and social benefits.
The three-year pact finalized earlier this month at the country’s largest silicomanganese processing plant establishes 40 hours as the standard work week, provides employees with health coverage, boosts pay for overtime and dozens more provisions.
Tamaz Dolaberidze, president of the Metal, Miner, and Chemical Workers’ National Trade Union (MMCWTUG) which represents the workers, says the contract is the first collective agreement based on the principles of social dialogue and social partnership at Zestafoni. The pact also includes language to ensure commitments are implemented and maintained.
Previous contract agreements, including one reached in 2010 and the other in 2013, were settled only after difficult strikes.
Earlier this year, MMCWTUG and the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC) assisted 750 Georgia coal miners in Tkibuli and 170 glass factory workers in Ksani in making big gains at the workplace after long strikes by workers at both sites.
Meherunnesa joined the crowds gathered in Dhaka over the weekend to commemorate the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. Her son, Abul Kalam Azad, was one of the more than 1,100 garment workers killed on April 24, 2013, as the multi-story building pancaked in a preventable accident that also left thousands severely injured. Meherunnesa, 70, travels 150 miles from her home in Satkhira, in southwest Bangladesh each year to honor him.
Meherunnesa, 70, lost her son in the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse. Credit: Solidarity Center
Across the city, garment workers and their allies took part in a series of actions, starting off with a wreath-laying in memory of those killed. Later, hundreds of garment workers formed a human chain at the Press Club to demand punishment for those responsible for the building’s collapse and press for social security insurance so that in the future, workers and their families can be compensated for workplace injuries and death. They were joined by members of the global union IndustriAll, Sramik Nirapotta Forum, the Solidarity Center and other allies.
Anisur Rahman is among those injured at Rana Plaza who says he never received compensation. Anisur was a maintenance worker on the building’s seventh floor when it collapsed. He survived a broken neck injury and now suffers from memory loss. He has been unable to get another job because of his injuries, but says he has not given up.
International outrage over the Rana Plaza and Tazreen disasters prompted creation of the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord process, a legally binding agreement in which nearly 200 corporate clothing brands pay for garment factory inspections. Dozens of garment factories have been closed for safety violations and pressing safety issues addressed.
Garment workers and their allies formed a human chain at the Press Club in Dhaka, part of events commemorating the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse. Credit: Solidarity Center
Since the Tazreen fire, 34 garment workers have been killed in fire incidents and 1,023 workers injured, according to data compiled by the Solidarity Center staff in Bangladesh.
Further, workers seeking to form unions to improve workplace safety have encountered increasing obstacles in doing so. Since January 2015, government approval of union registrations has dropped precipitously: In 2015, the government rejected 73 percent of union registration applications, according to data compiled by Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka. Rejections of workers’ desire to organize continues in 2016.
Garment workers increasingly face obstacles to forming unions and getting safety on the job. Credit: Solidarity Center
Citing “persistent and growing violations by the Bangladesh government of its responsibility to respect workers’ rights,” the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) filed a freedom of association case with the International Labor Organization (ILO).
According to the ITUC, the case, which will be heard by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association, “details how the government … sought the dissolution of existing unions and stood idly by when factory management have engaged in union-busting in contravention of the Bangladesh Labor Act and criminal law.” The details include examples of union leaders who have been beaten and hospitalized and members of union executive boards who have been fired.
Over the past few years, the Solidarity Center has held fire safety trainings for hundreds of garment factory workers. Workers learn fire prevention measures, find out about safety equipment their factories should make available and get hands-on experience in extinguishing fires.