Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) industry is the backbone of its economy, employing over 4 million workers, the majority of whom are women. However, the working conditions in the factories have often been poor, with issues like low wages, long hours, unsafe buildings, and obstacles to workers organizing. In response to these challenges, various NGOs have become involved in trying to improve conditions.
II. Trade Unions and NGO Roles
Trade unions in the RMG sector are weak, representing under 5% of workers. Obstacles to their growth and effectiveness include government restrictions, employer hostility, and male domination. In the absence of strong unions, NGOs have moved in to provide basic services, training, and support. However, this has led to some criticism, with some seeing NGOs as undermining unions.
The relationships between unions and NGOs are often competitive, not collaborative. NGOs are criticized for being apolitical, or for pacifying workers. Despite these criticisms, international NGOs have played a significant role in supporting local unions through funding, training women leaders, and launching transnational campaigns against poor conditions.
III. Women Workers and Empowerment
Women make up 80-90% of RMG workers. Despite their numbers, they face discrimination, and unions have historically neglected women’s concerns. NGOs like INCIDIN have sought to address this by strengthening networks of female labor leaders. Microcredit initiatives have also increased women’s income generation.
However, many NGOs focus narrowly on economic empowerment. Wider social empowerment has been limited, and patriarchal attitudes persist. This highlights the need for a more comprehensive approach to women’s empowerment in the RMG sector.
IV. Prominent NGOs in the RMG Sector
Several NGOs have made significant contributions to the RMG sector. NGOs like BRAC, Grameen Bank, and ASA provide microcredit to millions, enabling informal income generation. Others, like the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, campaign for higher wages and unions. The Bangladesh Garment Workers Protection Alliance (BGWPA) focuses specifically on garment workers.
Transnational NGOs like Oxfam fund training and workshops, while global unions support local organizing. These organizations play a crucial role in supporting workers and advocating for their rights.
V. Shortcomings of NGOs
Despite their contributions, NGOs have faced criticism for encouraging dependence rather than empowerment, and for being accountable to donors rather than citizens. Microcredit, while beneficial for some, has led to over-indebtedness for others due to high interest rates. Critics argue that NGOs have become vehicles for neoliberal policies that weaken unions and the state.
VI. Influence of Transnational Ties on NGOs
Many Bangladeshi NGOs receive significant funding from international donors and partners. While this external funding enables activities, it also influences priorities. Transnational NGOs like Oxfam directly fund training, capacity building, and organizing efforts for local groups working on labor issues. This expands capabilities but may encourage dependence.
Global union federations collaborate with and provide strategic support to local unions struggling to operate in a restrictive environment. This offers resources but risks co-optation. Campaigns by transnational activists have helped highlight poor working conditions globally, but representations of workers can be stereotyped and disempowering.
Participation of local NGOs in ethical trade/CSR initiatives of brands brings resources but can lead to depoliticization and demobilization. Ideas of “civil society” and social change promoted by Western donors may not fit the political realities faced by NGOs/unions on the ground.
Transnational ties can improve NGOs’ leverage with garment companies and government due to global connections. But this may undermine local accountability. As Western donors shift priorities, reliance on short-term foreign funds makes local NGOs/CSOs vulnerable and project-dependent.
VII. Depoliticization of Local NGOs
Participation in ethical trade and CSR initiatives can depoliticize local NGOs. For example, NGOs contracted by brands to provide factory-level training and monitoring around codes of conduct have tended to focus on technical issues like fire safety or HR compliance rather than defending labor rights more broadly.
After the Rana Plaza collapse, NGOs participated in industry-led groups like the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. But these prioritized gradual factory inspections over enabling prompt unionization. Many NGOs shifted from mobilizing garment workers to delivering vocational training and income generation activities sponsored by brands under CSR partnerships.
Participation of NGOs in bodies like the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and Fair Labor Association has given them a seat at the table. But critics say it has moderated their demands and advocacy. NGOs assist with brands’ internal auditing and social compliance for suppliers. But this technical role reduces their independence and ability to challenge corporate practices.
VIII. Improving Worker Representation in Industry-led Initiatives
There are several ways that worker voices could be better represented in CSR and ethical trade bodies. Workers should have direct seats at the table in these bodies, not just NGO representatives or union leaders. All factory-level committees dealing with codes of conduct implementation should include worker-elected representatives.
Independent worker surveys should feed into social auditing processes. Anonymous interviews and complaint mechanisms would provide direct input. Groups like the ETI and brand ethical trade teams should hold regular independent meetings with diverse workers, not just visits guided by managers.
Brands should provide financial support directly to democratically run worker centers independent of NGOs or industry, and take worker delegations to headquarters. Funds from CSR projects should be allocated to boost worker participation – for example, paying wages during meetings and training worker advocates.
Campaigns around ethical purchasing should involve worker spokespeople and develop leadership, not just use worker testimony. Any NGOs facilitating industry initiatives must have accountable processes for consulting garment workers and incorporating demands.
NGOs undoubtedly play significant roles in Bangladesh’s RMG sector, offering service delivery, advocacy, and organizing support. Yet their impact can be as multifaceted as the challenges they seek to address. Relationships between NGOs, unions, employers, and the state are in a constant state of flux, with varying interests and results. Transnational ties have both the power to shape NGO roles and the potential to carry foreign agendas. Thus, a focus on local accountability is vital to ensure that NGOs truly serve the best interests of the workers they strive to support.
In light of these complexities, there’s a growing recognition of the importance of ethical practices within the RMG sector. Organizations like Brandex Sourcing demonstrate how businesses can lead with quality control, affordability, on-time delivery, and a commitment to fair treatment of both the environment and workers’ health & safety. If you’re interested in aligning your business with such practices, we invite you to reach out to us for a quote.
Furthermore, for those interested in diving deeper into the topic of ethics in Bangladesh’s garment industry, we encourage you to explore our related article titled “Ethical Standards and Corporate Social Responsibility in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry”. It provides a comprehensive overview of the ever-evolving landscape of responsible sourcing, human rights, and the role that both local and international organizations play in shaping the industry. By connecting with us, you can be a part of this positive change.