Women’s labour rights

Challenges of RMG trade unions: a perspective from labour rights activists


“Teach a man to fish, but the fish he catches aren’t his. They belong to the person paying him to fish. And if he’s lucky he might get paid enough to buy a few fish for himself.” – Karl Marx, about capitalism

In the ready-made garment (RMG) factories of Bangladesh, workers toil all day long but earn wages inadequate to survive rising commodity prices. Not only are wages low, but often they are not paid on time. Karl Marx’s thoughts on the working class (their lack of capital ownership or access to profit) are reflected in the RMG sector; workers make clothes that are exported all over the world for a profit while the workers themselves do not earn enough to buy those clothes. Moreover, the RMG sector is a widely recognised industry that has been making a crucial contribution to rebuilding Bangladesh and our economy. Though they are contributing to the economy, workers are struggling economically.

Terms such as “class struggle”, “capitalism”, and “alienation” were confined to textbooks for me until I had an opportunity to visit Ashulia for a focus group discussion (FGD) with members of a labour rights organisation that fights for worker’s wages and decent workplaces, and against injustices in the sector. Hearing about the struggle of labour rights activists and trade unions deepened my knowledge of workers’ struggles. International Workers’ Day is a fitting day on which to share the reflections of the activists.

The strengths and struggles of labour rights activists

The FGD was a rich discussion, with participants sharing their experiences of organising and participating in movements, demonstrations, and discussions on labour rights. When we asked them about the source of their power, they shared that since they work with garment workers, their numbers are the biggest strength. However, one of the biggest challenges is engaging the workers in the movements. Although labour rights organisations are working for the benefit of fellow workers, many workers cannot or feel unable to support or work directly with trade unions.

Bringing together people for union activities is challenging for several reasons. Firstly, workers do not have enough time in the day to join protests and workshops. Factories intentionally assign heavier workloads, and many RMG workers do overtime. Workers are even required to do overtime on two Fridays (weekly holidays) a month. In the weeks leading up to Eid, they have no weekly holidays at all. They simply do not have enough time for themselves.

This is especially difficult for women, who make up the majority of workers in the RMG sector as a whole. Work in a factory starts at 8 am, and it is 10 pm by the time the workers finally return home. Then the responsibility for household chores often falls on their shoulders. Most do not have the time to think about — let alone fight against — injustices.

Secondly, factories do not want workers to be involved in trade union activity. Despite hectic schedules, some conscious workers try to join union activities. But demanding better hours, safer conditions, and fair pay puts them at risk of getting laid-off, sometimes without notice. The fear of losing their jobs and threats from management are some of the reasons why workers are hesitant to get involved in trade unions.

With high poverty levels, rising prices, low wages, and workers having double and triple burdens, joining the movement is itself a struggle. To survive, people need money by any means. Even if workers realise the extent of injustice, they have to submit to the pressures and restrictions. One of the activists said, “The workers never understand their importance in the garments sector. As a result, they hardly try to quit or change jobs. Rather, they try their best to cope despite the injustices.”

The perceived role of politics in trade unions

Sometimes, workers do not trust trade unions because of the fear that they are politically biased. Activists shared that those with political power and influence sometimes create fake trade unions, to threaten factory owners to hire those political influencers so that they can stop creating those fake trade unions in the factory. It is just a strategy to earn money from the owner. At other times, so-called trade unions (called “pocket unions” by our respondents) work for the factory owners’ goals. Therefore, this is seen as a reason not to join trade unions. However, not every trade union is politically biased. Some are committed to serving the workers, taking care of them, and raising a voice against injustices, without any financial gains.

Raising voices to achieve justice

Within the group, one can see immense empathy and courage. The difficulties of factory work, discussions on different injustices, and the barriers they overcame to join the union have only made the bonds stronger. With each event, protest, and discussion circle, they are fighting for their basic rights. They raise their voices against injustice.

I believe that the trade union demands fair wages and decent workplaces are minimum (and fair) demands. With pressure from those outside the industry, factory owners may be compelled to meet these demands. Therefore, those outside the industry also have a responsibility — be it as consumers or as fellow citizens — to support trade unions in their endeavours to improve working conditions. Lastly, in the FGDs it was clear to me that all that the workers want is justice in the garments sector. Provided they get ample support from their peers and co-workers, I believe one day that justice will prevail.