Apparel Factory in Dhaka
Flickr/ NYU Stern BHR
Apparel Factory in Dhaka Flickr/ NYU Stern BHR

State of disunion

International support for trade unionism in Bangladesh must proceed after separating the wheat from the chaff.
Apparel Factory in Dhaka<br />Flickr/ NYU Stern BHR
Apparel Factory in Dhaka
Flickr/ NYU Stern BHR

(This is an essay from our September 2015 print quarterly, 'The Bangladesh Paradox'. See more from the issue here.)

The ready-made garment industry has been the dominant plank of Bangladesh's development strategy for the last several decades. It is the primary source of foreign exchange and the nation's largest export industry, employing more than four million workers. The employers' organisation, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), is politically and socially powerful. Factory owners are major political players: in 2013, more than 30 members of Parliament owned garment factories. Meanwhile, the regulation unions in Bangladesh is heavily tilted against workers, making effective unionisation difficult, particularly in the garment sector.

In all national economies, the legal framework surrounding labour unions conditions but does not necessarily determine how they operate. With the worldwide shift in economic policy favouring the mobility of global capital over the last 30 years, this framework has been constricted against unions to such an extent that it operates essentially as an iron cage.

The Bangladeshi labour law is reasonably comprehensive in many regards. The Bangladesh Labour Act sets out legal rights in relation to working hours, overtime, maternity leave, health and safety, and other rights that one would expect to find in labour regulation.

But even in the most well-functioning of jurisdictions, workers cannot depend on state institutions to enforce labour rights, especially when neoliberal policies encourage close links between the state and private investors. Only the presence of independent and powerful unions can ensure the enforcement of labour laws, and it is in this regard that Bangladeshi legal and political practice is most flawed.

The most important components of labour law for unions are those that regulate or provide rights around freedom of association and the right to organise. Unfortunately, in regards to both, the labour act of Bangladesh leaves much to be desired. For instance, the registration of a workplace union requires that it has membership of at least 30 percent of the factory workforce. The list of members must be provided to the factory owner. All union officials must be employed in the factory, leaving them particularly vulnerable to dismissal or pressure from the management. Further, industrial action cannot be taken unless there is a two-thirds majority in favour of it, and there is no legislated right to stop work in dangerous situations. Similarly, despite improvements in occupational health and safety as a result of the activities of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (the Accord) – a legally binding agreement between global retail brands and unions in Bangladesh – occupational health and safety (OHS) laws remain weak and provide no legal right to elect representatives or committees. Indeed, Bangladesh has not ratified two important international labour standards on OHS: the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No 187) and the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No 155).

Combined with corruption and political interference in the bureaucracy, these laws make it burdensome for workers to get proper representation. Achieving the threshold of members is difficult when workers face risks to employment – and even physical safety – by identifying themselves as unionists. In an industry where workers are treated as expendable inputs to the production process and where the supply of labour is almost inexhaustible, reluctance to stand up against managers is entirely understandable. Given the very low level of wages, the relatively high cost of living for garment workers and other financial pressures, mainly involving the support of families back home, it is hardly surprising that the level of unionisation is very low.

Even when, against all odds, unions have managed to reach the thresholds, it is not uncommon for unions that are politically out of favour – especially those on the far left – to be refused registration. The disturbing increase in the number of factory closures since 2014 may be a response to the increase in new factory unions, as employers seek to rid themselves of organised workers and union officials. The closures may also be a result of the increase in overall scrutiny of the garment industry in the wake of the Rana Plaza devastation – the collapse of a eight-storey commercial complex with a garment factory where over 1000 people died – and the OHS work of the Accord. While it is difficult to know for sure, factory owners may avoid the costs and scrutiny of an Accord notice to make improvements by simply closing their factories and reopening elsewhere.

The combination of poor enforcement of labour laws by government agencies, and the repression of unionism is leading inevitably to poor working conditions. These include low wages, chronic underpayment of wages, excessive working hours, frequent victimisation of workers by supervisors and poor health and safety – all of which have been well documented, especially since the Rana Plaza collapse.

All this leaves the Bangladeshi union movement, like the Bangladeshi polity in general, highly fragmented. It prevents unions from adequately protecting or advancing the interests of workers.

Coercion and compliance

Bangladeshi unionism is chaotic, with large numbers of federations and factory-based units, multiple political alignments and little cohesion all around. When state development policies are intricately bound to the interests of particular fractions of capital or particular industries – the need to meet production targets as well as achieve political goals – it is difficult to distinguish the interests of the state from the class interests of the employers. In these instances, state and employers will be united in an effort to maintain the right conditions for maximising the development of industries that have been identified as important to national political goals of economic growth. A docile labour force is usually seen as a key requirement.

There is no clearer example of the intertwining of state and capital than the Industrial Police – a government police agency that operates in Bangladesh to maintain order in the manufacturing areas. In reality, Industrial Police is used to repress worker mobilisation on behalf of factory owners. It is in this context that 'yellow unions' – unions controlled by employers or sympathetic to employer interests above those of workers – operate.

Yellow unions are common in all countries with poor labour rights and underdeveloped labour organisation. The phenomenon is varied, ranging from the state-controlled unions of communist party-governed countries to unions established by employers within particular factories to individual unions that are compromised by their relationships with employers. While yellow unions exist in virtually all countries, the problem is more acute in the newly-industrialised countries of the Global South. They constitute a more effective and less 'confrontational' form of repression. So by supporting yellow unions – in addition to the previously mentioned legislative restrictions on unionisation – the state ensures that more militant unions are not allowed to develop.

It is difficult to know exactly what proportion of Bangladeshi unions operating in the garment manufacturing sector are yellow, not least because there are gradations. Some unions may be tolerated by employers because they rarely challenge management, even though they maintain formal independence. Others may see their role as primarily to ensure the smooth functioning of the factory. Meanwhile, a union that is able to exert sufficient power to have a meaningful influence over management decisions may help facilitate a harmonious and productive workplace in a way that cannot be characterised as selling out worker interests. But a union that sees its role as primarily ensuring that management decisions are implemented and that workers do not become organised to exert their own interests is certainly yellow.

Party political

The relationship with political parties is another important shaper of union activities in Bangladesh, with most unions having formal relationships. The fractured and fractious nature of Bangladeshi politics is thoroughly replicated in the union movement, with unions aligned with the ruling Awami League, the current opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – a rightwing party, which gets significant support from Islamist parties – the Jatiya Party, and small parties of the far left.

Party affiliation is not in itself problematic – this is common in almost all labour movements. The presence of unions associated with rightwing political parties is of concern in itself, but the ongoing fragmentation of Bangladeshi unions means that there is very little unity for the sake of labour security. Given that labour movement's power depends fundamentally on collective strength – whether at the factory, industry or movement level – this absence of unity contributes substantially to the overall weakness of the Bangladeshi labour movement.

The worst effects of such factionalism are visible in unions of radical left parties, including those from the Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyist and other leftist fronts. Many of these groups have 'unions' associated with them, although in many cases they have no real ability to represent workers in workplaces. Few of these unions are registered and thus have little ability to defend members in a formal legal sense. Only two of the bigger radical left unions, the Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre (associated with the Communist Party of Bangladesh) and the Garment Workers Unity Forum, have sufficient members to be legally eligible for registration, but officialdom refuses to formally recognise them.

Official bias against leftist unions is all-pervasive; however, some the radical leftist unions have found room for engagement outside the formal structures, through community organising and providing support in workers' communities, such as in childcare. More recently, some unions and their supporters have engaged in direct action in support of workers locked out of factories that are closing down. In August 2014, for instance, an alliance of radical unions occupied factories of the Toba Group and undertook a hunger strike, drawing violent retaliation from the police. In the first half of 2015, a union associated with the Communist Party of Bangladesh led street protests and occupations for many weeks in protest of lost wages and entitlements when Swan Garments closed down. The protestors were met with police violence. These factory occupations and other forms of protest show substantial promise in mobilising workers and activists to take collective action against injustice. The main problem, though, is that mobilisations tend to occur after the closure of factories, thus not resulting in organisation of workers within functioning workplaces.

From overseas

In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, and growing consumer-awareness campaigns in the West about the parlous state of the Bangladeshi garment industry, there has been an encouraging rise in the number of organisations seeking to help. This dynamic highlights the classic case of NGO unionism, with the focus on interaction with international organisations in order to pressurise Western companies to pay compensation after a disaster, rather than serious attempts to organise workers to prevent another Rana Plaza. Unlike traditional forms of unions, these NGO unions behave more like NGOs operating in the development sector. With much of their political and financial support coming from overseas organisations, they are outwardly-focused; the primary links are usually with international campaigns rather than domestic unions, organisations such as ethical supply-chain advocates or aid and development INGOs, and even overseas government agencies.

Great cooperative work can be done between overseas agencies and local unions, but the downside is that the priorities of foreign campaign organisations – which are sometimes more about assuaging the guilt of Western consumers than improving the working lives of poor workers in the Global South – can exercise undue influence on union strategies on the ground. The growing presence of English-language placards at union protests is one good indicator of this: the message being conveyed is clearly not aimed at local workers, most of whom do not speak English, but at foreign media and, ultimately, NGO unions' international partners.

There are further structural constraints to these internationally backed efforts. Even when campaign organisations have a deep commitment to improving the circumstances of workers in Bangladesh, they are inevitably limited by the fact that their primary support base exists in another country. They need to be careful that their programme is not so alarming that it would make them the target for government disapproval. Their message, therefore, is one of amelioration rather than transformation.

Even greater problems arise as NGO unionism becomes the dominant form of labour organising. Since NGO unions do not rely for their power, finances or support on organized labour of workplaces, in the absence of on-the-ground mobilisation their dominance can lead to the atrophy of geuine workplace organisation and can easily be challenged by aggressive employers. And so this form of unionism tends towards the providing aid to the workers rather than the development of worker organisation and power.

Despite these flaws, it is not hard to understand why unions might want to foster international links and act like NGOs. The level of repression of unions in Bangladesh is substantial, and seeking support from overseas organisations is a form of insurance as well as a source of legitimacy; the government and employers are likely to be more cautious in their attitudes to unions that have external links. There are other incentives for unions to develop strong external links. Bangladeshi garment workers are very poorly paid and so unions can charge only very low or no union dues, making it difficult to run an effective organisation. Overseas organisations and unions, in contrast, can provide large amounts of much-needed money.

One way in which unions can maintain links with international organisations outside the NGO framework is through Global Union Federations (GUF). In the case of the readymade garment industry the relevant GUF unit is IndustriAll, which brings together unions with members in the broad range of manufacturing industries, as well as mining and energy sectors. There are currently 21 union federations in the Bangladesh IndustriAll Council – the relevant body at IndustriAll concerned with Bangladesh's labour issues – with varying political affiliations and industrial strategies. It is fair to say that they cover the gamut of unions types mentioned so far, with some that are essentially yellow to others that take the NGO approach, to others that make an effort to organise workers on the ground.

IndustriAll affiliation became a currency of considerable value after Rana Plaza, because of the introduction of the Accord. IndustriAll, the headquarters of which are located in Geneva, is the key union partner to the Accord (along with UNI, a smaller GUF), which has become the main shaper of union activity in Bangladesh. Besides leading to improved safety in large numbers of factories, the Accord has also seen an easing of restrictions on union formation at factory level. Between 2013 and 2015, over 300 new factory unions were registered in the country, more than twice compared to the 132 registered in the decades before Rana Plaza.

Global Union Federations can provide important financial, training, organisational and political support to unions in Bangladesh. Problems can arise, however, when GUF affiliation privileges some unions over other more worthy ones, or when the politics of the GUF and its national body come to dominate union work. A number of leftwing unions are highly critical of IndustriAll Bangladesh Council because of its limited membership. It is not clear precisely why some unions are included while others are not, but political affiliation seems to be a factor, with more radical unions tending to be excluded. In addition, non-registered unions such as GWUF cannot to get membership even if they wanted to. Thus unions that are not affiliated to IndustriAll but are engaged in genuine worker organising are largely excluded from international solidarity activities and from engaging with the Accord. This is a loss for both those unions as well as for IndustriAll and the Accord.

Another major international partner of the country's labour movement is the Solidarity Centre, the Bangladeshi partner of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO), the US labour federation. The Solidarity Centre has its origins in the Asian American Free Labor Institute, an organisation established during the Cold War to advance US and hinder Soviet interests in developing countries' labour movements. In keeping with this ethos, Bangladeshi unions that receive support from the Solidarity Centre – most notably the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers' Federation (BIGUF) and the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) – tend to be relatively conservative organisations that avoid radical direct action, and have been accused of being too closely aligned with the interests of their sponsors.

Solution in solidarity

The future for organised labour in Bangladesh does not look encouraging. As international attention on workers' rights has peaked, and efforts like the Accord have made some difference in reducing health and safety risks, the situation of garment workers has not improved significantly. In the wake of Rana Plaza, spontaneous mass strikes led to the granting of a 77 percent increase in the minimum wage – to BDT 5300 (USD 68). In response, employers have sought to strip workers of the benefit of this rise by increasing production targets, failing to pay overtime and other exploitative measures. At the same time, housing and other living costs have risen. Labour historian Zia Rahman's conclusion from 2011 remains true today:

The mainstream unions… have become officially registered at particular factories and have signed agreements with employers, but have not mobilized workers to any appreciable extent. The radical unions have had successes in assisting garment workers to undertake collective actions… but have been refused union registrations by the state and cannot get any employer to sign an agreement with them.

Many radical unionists are, correctly, focused on grassroots organising and advocating for systemic transformation, not just for changes within the economic and political system as it stands. All this is important. But the international experiences of the last 25 years shows that the legislative and political context in which unions operate matters. The long-term decline in union membership in much of the Western economies is not just about industrial restructuring and the disappearance of blue collar jobs. The fundamental element of the neoliberal agenda worldwide has been the introduction of workplace and industrial laws designed to reduce the power of organised labour. It is this, combined with major shifts in the nature of the global economy and the loss of economic sovereignty in the face of globalisation, that has driven union decline.

In Bangladesh, the role of the legislative framework in suppressing union activity is obvious. Thus, it is vital that those interested in the rights of Bangladeshi workers push also for dramatic improvements in the laws that govern the existence of unions. Unions function best in the light of day. If workers can join them without fear of retaliatory violence or loss of employment, if organisers can carry out their work without fear of being attacked, unions are much more likely to grow and to provide safety in numbers, which lies at the heart of unionism. Improving the legal framework for unions is by no means a panacea, but in the current political and economic moment it is vital to giving unions the space to organise and build.

Given the full integration of the Bangladeshi readymade garments industry with the global economy, it is just as important to think of solutions to Bangladesh's organised labour's challenges in a global context. While international NGOs and Global Union Federations cannot impose a functioning union movement on Bangladesh, it is also the case that Bangladeshi unions need the support of international comrades wherever possible. This should not be in the form of foreign unionists or activists telling Bangladeshi unionists what to do, or parachuting in to conduct 'trainings'. It also cannot come merely in the form of consumer boycotts or education campaigns.

Just as changes to the legal framework around unions is important to give them room to operate, international organisations should focus on creating the space for Bangladeshi unions to organise. One example of such activism is set out in the Australia Asia Workers Links' 'Global Picketline' concept. The idea is quite simple: just as the production strategies and processes of companies are organised at an international level, the industrial struggles of workers in those companies and industries must be organised internationally. The Global Picketline involves unionists and activists mapping companies, production networks and unions, to identify their links, strong and weak, prior to taking actions targeted at important nodes in the global production chain.

Efforts like Global Picketline are more likely to be successful where strong trade union movements exist. This is not the case in the Bangladeshi garment industry. Thus, a preliminary step is needed before a strategy like Global Picketline can be introduced: international assistance to Bangladeshi workers to create the framework of functioning unions. This requires international organisations to provide support for Bangladeshi unions in the activity of on-the-ground organising, working to identify supply chains and targeting both ends of them. Thus, when Bangladeshi unions organise around specific factories, unions and activists abroad must stand ready to put pressure on the brands that get their supplies from those factories, in case workers or organisers are victimised. This approach enables a form of genuine solidarity that allows for both independent organising by Bangladeshi unionists, and meaningful collective action by unionists and activists in the home countries of the global brands. Unions in the latter countries will help to create a safer space for mobilisation in Bangladesh, but the organising itself must be undertaken by Bangladeshi unionists in a manner that works for them and for Bangladeshi workers.

International solidarities are important, especially in a globalised world, where the primary customers for Bangladeshi garments are in other countries. The call, 'Workers of the world unite' is perhaps more important today than ever before, and it is taken seriously by many Bangladeshi unionists. But it is important to remember that in countries where the union movement has played an important role in winning rights for workers and improving living standards, there is no example of real union power being built by purely international support and in the absence of grassroot unionism. Union power has always been built painstakingly, from the ground up, often against great odds and oppression, reflecting and challenging the distinct historical, social and political conditions of the societies in which unions develop.

~ Colin Long is the Victorian Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union, Australia, and a member of the executive of Australia Bangladesh Solidarity Network and Australia Asia Workers Links.

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