Bangladesh garment factory delegation

Archana Rampure is a senior officer with CUPE’s National Services department with a focus on political action. The following is her account of the recent union delegation trip to Bangladesh.

There are over 5,000 readymade garment factories in Bangladesh. Despite years of organizing, fewer than 60 of them actually have trade unions, which represent about 20,000 of more than four million garment factory workers.

The Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) invited a trade union delegation comprised of CUPE (Sharon Hubely from CUPE 1867 and Archana Rampure from CUPE National), PSAC, USW and UNIFOR to Dhaka, Bangladesh. This is the second delegation to Bangladesh CUPE has participated in following the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013.

Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of BCWS, traveled in 2014 to Canada to expose the conditions under which so many women worked in Bangladesh. After her visit CUPE committed to meeting with these workers to see and hear firsthand accounts of the working conditions.

The delegation arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, on February 3 and spent the first few days meeting with, and listening to, workers in the garment industry.

Many workers are primarily young women and have moved to the city from rural areas. Desperately looking for work, they are forced into factories. The normal workday is supposed to be eight hours, but is generally at least 10 and often 12 hours, with the extra hours being mandatory unpaid ‘overtime’.

We heard amazing stories from young women who have been working in factories since they were 12 or 13 years old and were fired for trying to organize unions.

Many workers told us about the pressure to meet production quotas, not being allowed lunch, or even water and bathroom breaks. They have endured physical and emotional abuse.

Some workers who tried to organize have been arrested on false charges of terrorism. Other workers were beaten and their families were intimidated. Almost all of them have been threatened with the loss of their jobs if they did not lie to outside auditors and state that working conditions were great.

Workers told us they were forced to sign papers showing that they received amounts of money vastly inflated from what they were actually paid. One woman told us her story of being videotaped while receiving her maternity benefits and then having them forcibly taken away. We were told about former colleagues being fired for speaking out, or arrested, beaten and blacklisted from the industry so that they are no longer able to make a living.

These are not the working conditions of people living in the 1800s. These are the current conditions under which millions of mostly young women work to produce cheap clothing for large multinational corporations, whose demand in the West continues to grow exponentially.

Over four million Bangladeshis work in this sector. Their work helps bring in over 75 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange, yet the vast majority of them work for less than $100 CDN a month.

We visited the sites of the Rana Plaza building collapse and the Tazreen Fashion factory fire with Akter, who recounted the tragedies that took the lives of over 1,300 workers.

Akter told us about going into the Tazreen building and retrieving documents that showed that brands such as Wal-Mart were sourcing work from that building. When the company tried to deny their presence in the building and therefore their culpability in the fire, the documents she collected helped to prove what really happened.

Many of the workers believe that their only hope is to pressure the global brands, so they will compel the factory owners they subcontract work to in Bangladesh, to respect health and safety regulations and the right to organize unions.   

Workers appealed to us to ensure that consumers in the West understand the conditions under which they work, and to expose the brands that continue to look the other way.

There is a feeling among workers that if Canada actually cared about the conditions under which they work, our government would make access to the Canadian market dependent upon better working conditions. The conditions should include a living wage and access to public services such as health care, clean water, and health and safety regulations that are actually enforced.

The BCWS offers hope in the middle of this dreadful situation. With a handful of organizers, three labour lawyers and a few other dedicated staff, the centre tries to provide education about workers rights under Bangladesh’s labour laws.

This work has drawn the ire of the authorities and the centre’s staff have been arrested, threatened and beaten. In one case, their colleague Aminul Islam was murdered. Despite the constant threats the centre keeps doing the work, and workers keep organizing.

If there is any hope for the millions of unorganized garment industry workers in Bangladesh, it lies in the determination of the activists we had the privilege of meeting over the last few days. Their courage in the face of such incredible odds left us all in awe.