The freedom to form factory-level unions and negotiate job safety, living wages and fundamental social protections is key to any reform of Bangladesh’s labor laws, leaders and members of Bangladesh unions and worker organizations told U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). Over the weekend, Miller held two meetings at the Solidarity Center’s Bangladesh office with garment union leaders and more than two dozen workers from newly formed and registered unions at 20 garment factories.
“I come here to hear your stories,” Miller said as he opened one meeting, to heartfelt greetings. He assured participants he would bring their stories to his colleagues in the U.S. Congress and continue to support the struggle of Bangladeshi workers. When he asked for specific issues he should discuss with the Bangladesh government, the group suggested trade union rights, fire and building safety, and wages.
One factory union leader described how employer opposition made it extremely hard for workers at her garment factory to form a union—but how the work environment immediately improved after they succeeded in forming one.
“It was difficult to get our union,” said Maksuda, general secretary of the Sadia Garments Workers Union at Sadia Garments. (Like many in Bangladesh, Maksuda uses only one name.) “Workers were getting fired, thugs were in front of the factory gates harassing us and it was very discouraging. But we continued, and now we have our union registration. I am amazed that immediately we were able to hold a dialogue with management and were treated with respect right away. I am looking forward to changes that we can achieve with our union.”
Alamgir, a union president at a different factory, said benefit cuts and delays in receiving overtime pay pushed workers to form a union. Management fought their efforts. But once the union had its registration, the company engaged in talks with workers, returned benefits and gave workers a small, incremental wage increase.
Miller also met with leaders from Solidarity Center partners, including the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation (BIGUF), the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity (BFWS) and the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF).
BIGUF Joint Secretary Rashedul Alom Raju said that while the government of Bangladesh has announced it would raise the minimum wage for the nation’s 4 million garment workers and make forming a union easier, “it is too early to tell how serious the government is” regarding other amendments to the labor code, which may or may not benefit workers.
The government announcement came after at least 1,127 garment workers were killed when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in late April just five months after a deadly fire at another factory. In recent months, the government has registered 27 factory-level unions and called for the formation of a minimum wage board.