In Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center aims to advance worker rights and support its partners in the garment industry and in seafood processing, as well as promote the rights of Bangladeshi migrant workers. Strong unions capable of protecting worker rights can ensure safe and productive workplaces and constructive labor-management relations, enabling Bangladesh’s overall economy to strengthen and flourish.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with roughly 166 million people living in an area the size of Wisconsin. Its 78-million-member workforce is primarily made up of farmers—tea and rice are two important crops. More than 4 million workers, mostly women, are employed in more than 4,500 ready-made garment (RMG) factories.

Although the Bangladesh RMG industry is by far the country’s biggest export earner, wages remain the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations. Yet the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Luxembourg and Montreal. Along coastal areas, more than 1 million workers work long hours for low wages in the shrimp and fish processing supply chain, often under insecure, short-term contracts.

Garment workers and other industrial workers in Bangladesh’s export-processing zones (EPZ) are subject to a different, much weaker set of labor laws than workers in the rest of the country, and these laws do not meet international standards for freedom of association and collective bargaining rights. One important example is that Bangladeshi law prohibits garment workers in EPZ factories from joining or creating a union, thereby compromising their ability to improve conditions in their workplaces.

The 2012 Tazreen factory fire and the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse were two of the deadliest industrial disasters in Bangladesh—and with more than 1,100 workers killed and thousands more injured, Rana Plaza was the worst structural disaster in the history of the global garment industry. Workers at the factories were not covered by unions, which can act to ensure safety and health on the job.

Following the Rana Plaza tragedy, apparel brands, retailers, trade unions and NGOs came together to adopt the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety. The 2013 Accord was a landmark safety agreement due to its legal enforceability and improved transparency. Hundreds of factories were inspected and safety standards enforced.

For workers to truly be safe in their workplaces, they must have a real say in their working conditions. Since the Tazreen fire, the Solidarity Center has assisted independent garment workers unions to form more than 100 new unions, covering more than 115,000 workers. Although collective bargaining remains extremely difficult, the Solidarity Center has supported unions in negotiating 50 collective bargaining agreements. The Solidarity Center has trained 5,800 workers on fire and building safety, making them more capable of engaging with inspectors, factory management, and even brands to make the necessary changes in their factories.

Yet workers still report that employers verbally and physically abuse them, and sometimes fire them when they seek to form a union. Union organizers have been attacked and beaten while talking with garment workers, as factory managers resist union organizing efforts. Employers use gender-based violence at work as a tool to intimidate workers. The Solidarity Center partners with Bangladesh unions to conduct gender equality training and campaign for an International Labor Organization standard to end gender-based violence at work.

Each year, more than 400,000 workers leave Bangladesh for overseas employment. Many are targets of unscrupulous labor brokers and are forced to work in dangerous, inhuman conditions. In addition, Bangladeshi migrants often pay considerably higher fees to recruiters and agents to work abroad than their counterparts from other countries. Since 2013, the Solidarity Center has provided training on safe migration and anti-human trafficking to more than 31,700 migrant workers and potential migrant workers, as well as nearly 1,900 local government officials.

Shahida, a Bangladesh migrant domestic worker who achieved fair working conditions through collective action with other domestic workers, is among workers reached through Solidarity Center programs (see video). The USAID-funded Global Labor Program highlighted in this video builds on four years of work supported by the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.