‘We will not stand for this any more,’ says Leeli, a garment worker in Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka. ‘We all talk about life before and after Rana Plaza.’ Leeli became unionized, joining the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), after coming across a rally and being surprised to learn that a strike had led to workers getting compensation after a factory closure. She lives in a slum close to work, but her family, including her son whom she gets to see just once a year, live in her village some distance away. Most of her wages go to them.
The Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013, in which 1,130 people died and 2,500 were injured, was a defining moment for women like Leeli. The garment industry is built on exploitation and, since Rana Plaza and the subsequent media coverage, workers are all too aware of it. They are organizing and fighting back against the global fashion brands which, despite dictating the design of the clothes down to the last stitch, claim they have little power to ensure the basic rights of workers.
The right to form unions is the primary concern for garment workers who know that real change on the factory floor comes from them, not from fashion brands or their government. They also know that nothing is stopping another Rana Plaza from happening tomorrow. Earlier this year, for example, a fire broke out in a garment factory in Dhaka. Had it happened an hour later, the factory would have been filled with 6,000 workers, unable to escape.
The much-heralded Bangladesh Accord on Health and Safety was signed just weeks after Rana Plaza and was the first time the fashion industry acknowledged its direct responsibility for factory conditions. Yet this legally binding agreement is due to end in 2018 and whether or not it will be considered a success hinges on the extent to which it can push brands to guarantee the changes needed to make factories safe over the next two years. The workers are not holding their breath. They insist that the only way they can improve their conditions is by organizing collectively. On the day of the collapse, the workers in Rana Plaza had seen the cracks in the walls and rushed outside, yet were ordered back to work. As individuals they had little power to refuse; had they been unionized, they may have been able to resist their bosses’ demands. Hours later, they were buried in rubble.
In July 2013, Bangladesh amended its labour law, making it much easier for unions to be formed, though the rule remains that 30 per cent of a factory’s workers must have joined before a union will be officially recognized and registered. The widespread threats and intimidation that workers face when they organize means that reaching this 30-per-cent threshold is incredibly difficult, particularly in larger factories where it could mean signing up well over 1,000 workers. Terminating the contracts of workers who attempt to unionize their workplace is also common practice.
Still, the past three years have seen new unions being established and a steady growth in membership, though only five per cent of the workforce is unionized. Not surprisingly, local unions spend much of their time fighting to have sacked workers reinstated. Often, more energy is spent protecting union leaders than on the ongoing issues of forced overtime, unpaid wages, unsafe drinking water and undue pressure to reach production targets.
Most of the factory-level union representatives are women, yet the union leaders themselves are mostly men. Given that 85 per cent of garment workers in Bangladesh are women, this disparity and lack of representation causes problems – union issues tend to be framed as generic labour rights issues rather than women’s rights issues. Women are disproportionately affected by working conditions, not only regarding their reproductive health, but also because employers treat women in the workplace differently from men. ‘We are the ones always doing the difficult tasks,’ explains one woman. ‘The men will do the packing and earn much more than us. But we work very hard, too.’
It is hard to find a unionized female garment worker who has not been verbally abused and physically or sexually assaulted
The need for female leadership is now on the agenda of many trade unions, though in Bangladesh this requires challenging a broader, entrenched culture of patriarchy, and change is slow. Responses are varied, from running gender awareness and women’s leadership training sessions, to amending union bylaws to restrict key leadership positions – such as general secretary and president – to women only.
This is not about ‘empowering women’, a term that suggests that power is something to be given to women, rather than coming from the women themselves. The reality is that women are actively fighting for their rights, despite the danger this puts them in. Factory owners routinely engage gangs of thugs to beat, threaten to kill and sexually harass women who lead and join unions. It is hard to find a unionized female garment worker who has not been verbally abused and physically or sexually assaulted. These abuses have become so normalized that the women accept the risk as part of the struggle.
After Rana Plaza, the world woke up to how global fashion brands are implicated in the appalling working conditions in the factories that make our clothes. But fashion brands continue to play a significant part in denying workers the right to unionize, despite this being the best prevention against another factory collapse. By refusing to publish details of the factories in their supply chain, they prevent local trade unions investigating working conditions and using the information to lobby brands and their customers. A handful of companies, including H&M and Marks and Spencer, have released their supply chain information, but they have not indicated the volume of production taking place in each factory. This means that when abuses are found, the brand’s usual retort is that only a small percentage of their clothes are produced there, and that they therefore have limited leverage on working conditions.
As if all these challenges weren’t enough for the women garment workers who are trying to organize, the existence of so-called ‘yellow unions’ makes their situation even harder. Yellow unions are established by factories, or linked to political parties, and they stop workers from being able to form their own independent, representative unions by actively preventing workers fighting for their rights. By purportedly representing workers, they dissuade them from collective action and make it difficult for them to know that it is possible to have a truly representative union.
International union federations such as IndustriALL need to be more discerning about which unions they affiliate with. If they allow yellow unions to join the federation, they undermine the independent trade unions’ struggle to support workers. ‘By legitimizing yellow unions,’ one unionist explains, ‘they have polluted the labour movement in every country.’ The last thing workers need is for corrupt unions to give organizing a bad name.
Alia, a woman who has worked tirelessly for women’s rights with the NGWF, underlines the need for solidarity. ‘Without being able to work together and fight together,’ she says, ‘we have nothing.’ Workers desperately need access to unions and to the support and education they provide. Garment workers united, organized and educated through their unions could – and should – be a force to be reckoned with.
Thulsi Narayanasamy is Senior International Programmes Officer (Asia and the Pacific) at War on Want.