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Multinationals Repress Workers in Bangladesh

"Multinationals must behave responsibly towards workers in Bangladesh"

Brussels, 9th July 2004 (ICFTU Online): Nazma Akter is the General Secretary of the BIGUF (1), which has no links to any political party and has 60,000 members. At 30 years old, Akter puts all her energy into defending workers despite the repression that trade unionists sometimes face in Bangladesh. The BIGUF General Secretary is concerned by the possible social impact of the ending of the export quotas system in 2005.

The end of the Agreement on textiles and clothing, which will remove all export quotas as of January 2005, threatens to have a big impact on jobs in the textile sector in Bangladesh, mainly because of competition from the export giant China. What effect do you believe that this will have on Bangladesh?

Bangladesh has several disadvantages compared to China, including the fact that it does not have enough of the raw materials needed to produce clothes: we have to import materials and cut and sew them together before they can be exported as finished products. We lose time in this process. No-one really knows what will happen after 1 January 2005 and to what extent the sector will be affected. This uncertainty is very worrying for workers. Most employees in the sector are women and almost all come from rural areas. They have no other alternative if they lose their jobs. Bangladesh's legislation provides for some financial compensation for dismissed workers but such payments are not always made. Are we likely to see large protests if tens of thousands of people lose their jobs without any severance pay?

There is no doubt that there will be a problem if a very large number of people all find at the same time and cannot meet basic needs like feeding themselves. As unions we help sacked workers to go to court to obtain the compensation to which they are legally entitled. That said, if Bangladeshi factories do close we may have to take things further and make representations to the "big labels" that are currently buying their goods from Bangladesh but would be eager to place their orders to China instead. These companies have the financial means to compensate the workers and it is they who promoted the development of this sector in Bangladesh. If they cancel their orders there is not much that Bangladeshi employers will be able to do about it. We want the international trade union movement to make the multinationals aware of their responsibilities and prevent them from abandoning Bangladeshi workers, whose hard work and low wages have enabled them to make huge profits.

How have developments in the textile industry affected Bangladeshi women?

Women with jobs in the textile industry are respected more by their husbands and families since they are contributing financially to their households' survival. That is very important in a country like Bangladesh. When the textile industry initially started growing here, the women employed in it were despised by society and had a bad reputation, but that is no longer the case now that everyone appreciates the importance of their financial contribution.

What are the main violations of the rights of textile workers in Bangladesh?

Freedom of association is a fundamental right that almost all employers in the textile industry deny their employees. The big multinationals that buy products in Bangladesh are concerned about the working environment though not about workers' basic rights, such as the right to form a union. There are also many cases of verbal harassment of workers and, more rarely, of physical violence. Long working hours and employers' refusal to grant women maternity leave are some of the other recurrent problems. When we go to court to enforce respect of a worker's rights we have a good chance of winning the case, but some employers use the very nasty device of forcing workers to sign a letter of resignation at the same time as their recruitment contract, which is later used by the employer to claim that a worker filing a court case was no longer on the staff. Is it a dangerous job being a union leader in Bangladesh?

Courageous and honest trade unionists are vital in Bangladesh. If you are sincere I don't think there are major problems. We are sometimes arrested and beaten, but if we don't fight we will never win.

You say that trade unionists are sometimes arrested and beaten but there are no major problems!

If someone else is arrested I feel very bad about it. When it's me, I know I have friends who will find a way of helping me. My family is very poor and we are far from being part of the country's elite, but thanks to my work with BIGUF, I'm "known", and even the BGMEA (the employers' association) demanded my release the last time I was arrested. The police had imprisoned me along with two other women activists last year, but I was released a day later whilst the other two had to stay for several days. I am disgusted by such injustice. We are well aware that it is wrong that we should have so much trouble simply for defending the rights of the poorest workers, but it is essential that we go on raising their problems. When I was a child my mother and I worked in a factory, but we were so poor that we didn't have any shoes. Having paid the rent for our home we hardly had anything left to buy food. That situation is changing slowly but not at the speed we all wanted, so we will need to fight...BIGUF makes its contribution through its trade union campaigns and various social projects, for example running schools for our members' children (thanks to help from the ACILS), but we need more international support to get a decent life for Bangladeshi workers.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

(1) Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation. Unlike most Bangladeshi unions, BIGUF treats women well in terms of representation, since 80% of its steering committee must be women and the President must be a woman. (2) American Center for International Labor Solidarity

See also Trade Union World Briefing: Bangladesh: the tension is rising... ( http://www.icftu.org/displaydocument.asp?Index=991220291)

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