The ready-made garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh plays a significant role in the country’s economy. However, the sector is riddled with issues related to workers’ rights, particularly in the areas of freedom of association and trade union organizing. This article delves into the role of unions and trade union activity in Bangladesh’s clothing factories.
The RMG Sector: An Overview
The RMG sector in Bangladesh has grown exponentially since the early 1980s. From just fifty factories in 1980, the sector has expanded to include over 5,115 factories as of 2022. Despite this growth, the sector is plagued with widespread workers’ rights violations, particularly in areas of freedom of association and trade union organizing.
The State of Trade Unions in the RMG Sector
Trade unions at the enterprise level in the RMG sector are weak, and there is a continuous effort to hold back trade union activities. The situation has not improved despite various initiatives, such as the amendment of the Bangladesh Labour Act (BLA) 2006, approval of Bangladesh Labour Rules, 2015, and the formation of elected participation committees (PCs). The sector has 54 industrial federations and 945 basic trade unions as of August 2020. However, the workforce of this sector is mostly unorganized, and they face many barriers in their efforts to organize themselves.
Challenges Faced by Unions
Multiplicity of Unions: In Bangladesh’s garment sector, the multiplicity of unions is an important feature, yet it is one of the great weaknesses in representing workers’ interests. The non-representative character of the unions at the plant level and the ever-growing organizational multiplicity suffers from poor organizational strength caused by lack of membership.
Lack of Female Membership: RMG sector unions lack female membership. This is in stark contrast to the overall percentage of women employed in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment sector. This reveals that men disproportionately occupy membership of trade unions, and the percentage of women joining trade unions remains generally lower than the percentage for men.
Politicization of Unions: Unions along with their members are highly politicized. Most trade unions are linked with political parties—both financially and through networks. The ruling party’s federation usually has the most affiliated unions. Due to the ideological divide along with factional split, trade union strengths have become fragmented and disjointed.
Financial Challenges: The RMG sector trade unions suffer heavily in terms of finance in representing employees’ interests. The average income of most of the unions has been low and inadequate to carry out regular advocacy through direct and indirect means. The insufficiency of funds adversely affects low-coverage unions’ ability to represent, and it also compels others to depend on the blessings of the government, donations.
Efforts to Improve Trade Union Activity: Despite the challenges, various initiatives have been undertaken to improve the situation of trade union organizing. These include the amendment of the Bangladesh Labour Act (BLA) 2006, approval of Bangladesh Labour Rules, 2015, and the formation of elected participation committees (PCs). While these initiatives have not yet led to significant improvements, they represent important steps towards strengthening trade unions in the sector.
The Impact of Unions on Workers
Workers in the RMG sector are the ultimate victims of these challenges. Denial of timely wage payment, termination, layoff, more workload, and extended working hours are reportedly common in the sector. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these issues, with rampant order cancellations leading to job cuts.
Voice for Workers: The existence of trade unions has provided a platform for workers to voice their concerns and grievances. While the practice of collective bargaining is rarely seen at the factory level, the presence of trade unions provides workers with a formal channel to communicate with authorities.
Resilience Amid Financial Challenges: Despite the financial challenges faced by trade unions, they have been able to continue their advocacy work, albeit at a limited capacity. This shows the resilience of trade unions in the face of adversity and their commitment to representing workers’ interests.
The role of unions and trade union activity in Bangladesh’s clothing factories is crucial for the protection of workers’ rights. However, the current state of unions in the sector is far from ideal. Addressing the challenges faced by unions, such as multiplicity, lack of female membership, politicization, and financial difficulties, is essential for improving the state of workers’ rights in the sector.
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You might also be interested in our article about Labor Rights and Working Conditions in Bangladesh’s Apparel Industry.