Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bangladesh: National Garment Workers Federation

Abbreviated report from June 2007 Dhaka meeting between the Bangladeshi National Garment Workers' Federation and a representative of the IWW’s International Solidarity Commission

This article was originally published in the August 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, my union's newspaper.

Many readers of the Industrial Worker are already acquainted with the ongoing struggles in Bangladesh’s garment sector, as well as the activities of one of its most vocal unions, the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF). Over the past three years numerous Wobblies have worked to build solidarity with the NGWF, most notably in Pittsburgh and upstate New York. At a “Labor Notes” conference in May 2006, Fellow Worker Greg Giorgio met with the NGWF’s General Secretary, Amirul Haque Amin. When asked how the IWW’s International Solidarity Commission (ISC) could best be of help to the NGWF’s struggles, FW Amin replied: “We need continuous support. But before providing support, we need more (time to learn) about each other. So, I will be happy if someone from the IWW visits Bangladesh...the NGWF...our members, share their struggles, share their information.”

In early June of this year, I was able to accept Amin’s invitation and visit the NGWF office in Dhaka on behalf of the ISC. Our meeting took place barely one year after “a wave of fierce class struggle” brought Bangladeshi garment workers (and others) into direct clashes with police and the military. This months-long conflict resulted in several workers killed, thousands more injured or imprisoned, and over a dozen factories burned to the ground. The current atmosphere, though tranquil by comparison, was nevertheless foreboding; early monsoonal rains had already flooded out some parts of Dhaka, and a government-imposed “State of Emergency” remained in effect, with general elections postponed indefinitely and a resulting backslide in labor rights and civil liberties.

It was heartening however to learn that despite government restrictions on public protest, the NGWF’s union-building activities continue apace, including membership recruitment, worker education and organizer trainings, and provision of legal assistance. NGWF membership now stands at >22,000 workers, 5000 of whom are classified as “regular subscribers” (i.e., members who regularly pay union dues of 10 Takas/month), with the remainder classified as “subscribers.” Currently the NGWF has 30 factory-based unions, and 1000 “factory committees” (a factory committee is a first step towards forming a union in the workplace).

Amin views these membership numbers as a real victory given the extreme difficulties with forming unions in Bangladesh. When the NGWF was founded 23 years ago, they had no office space and organized their meetings in parks, cheap restaurants, academic institutions, and other public spaces. Now the union has grown to 7 offices, including 6 branch offices covering all the industrial zones plus their central office in Dhaka. The NGWF also now has 11 full-time organizers and 8 part-time. Yet despite the union’s growth, Amin still refers to the NGWF as “small and not well-funded compared to the trade union organizations elsewhere.”

Another striking feature of the NGWF, and of the Bangladeshi garment sector, is its gender composition: 80-85% of Bangladeshi garment workers are reportedly women. The NGWF tries to reflect this demographic reality in its organizational structure and according to the NGWF’s constitution, at least 50% of any committee must be comprised of women. The union’s National Council, its highest decision-making body, currently has 16 women (out of 30 members), including a female President, both Vice Presidents, the Treasurer, and other officers. Of their 19 staff, 11 are women. The NGWF’s gender composition has also influenced its campaigning, and one of the union’s primary campaigns has been for the implementation of maternity leave.

Other NGWF campaigns in recent years have included:

  • *campaign for the implementation of free trade union rights (respective to International Labor Organization conventions 87 & 98--the right to organize and collective bargaining)
  • *campaign for a six-day work week
  • *campaign for improved health, safety, and security
  • *campaign for a paid May Day holiday
  • *campaign for an annual (Muslim) festival bonus

Throughout the sector, forcing bosses to simply follow Bangladesh’s existing labor laws has been a major ongoing struggle, and a much more difficult one while the State of Emergency is used to repress workers’ direct action.

Apart from gathering more in-depth information on how the union operates, another major purpose of our meeting was to discuss continued collaboration between the IWW and the NGWF. Amin reiterated in no uncertain terms that pressure from consumers onto multi-national corporations, and from these corporations onto their sub-contractors, is extremely important. Unions such as the NGWF will continue their fights at the local level, but they are limited in what they can accomplish without the solidarity of people outside the country. Basically, there are millions of unemployed Bangladeshis, and the bosses can fire with impunity, knowing that they can easily replace however many workers they need to. What is much more difficult is for the individual factories to continue to receive orders once their reputation has been damaged publicly. As such, according to Amin, international pressure on the brand-companies is as important, and some times even more important, than anything the workers can do locally. Amin insists that the NGWF and their allies in the West have to build capacity and partnership, acknowledging that a key aspect of that partnership is information exchange linking conditions in specific factories with particular brands/corporations. From their end, the NGWF would like to commit two additional staff-people specifically to such a focus, and Amin estimates that the total cost for the organizers would be $200/month. Realizing such a proposal obviously requires more detailed discussion.

Also on the topic of information exchange, Amin agreed with FWers in Pittsburgh that the formation of not only North-South, but also South-South communication networks is crucial. As such, he thinks that the possibility of the IWW facilitating exchanges between the NGWF and workers’ organizations in Latin America is a “very interesting and useful concept.” He requests that the IWW play a central role in such a project, making the initial introductions between the NGWF and groups in Latin America, from which point the three groupings (NGWF, IWW, and Latin American unions) could have ongoing conversations.

Amin is also very interested in the idea of organizing along the entirety of the supply chain. He supports projects which would, for instance, connect U.S. workers in Wal-Mart’s distribution centers with Bangladeshi garment workers sewing the clothes with Latin American workers producing the fabric. Amin believes that such an approach is essential if workers are going to win in the long-run and suggested Wal-Mart as an appropriate target, stating that “all workers throughout the world” need to be targeting the company—due both to the sheer size of their supply chain as well as the symbolic value of all that the company represents.

And finally, we discussed more immediate and concrete means of increasing the levels of communication between the two unions. The NGWF would like to begin receiving a few additional copies/month of the IW to share with their branch offices, and agreed to submit more regular updates to IW regarding their activities. Amin is also interested in having a few key IWW materials translated into Bengali and perhaps doing a sizable print run of these materials to distribute to NGWF members.

Overall, our meeting was both comradely and productive. While no major breakthroughs were accomplished, some small steps were made, and a relationship that could with time become very important for both unions was strengthened. I will be based in India until at least the end of 2007, possibly longer, and if the ISC requests another trip to Dhaka during that time I will gladly oblige. In the meantime, the ISC, as well as Fellow Workers who support this budding IWW-NGWF relationship, have much to discuss and follow up on.

During the period of writing and researching this article Jason Fults was a Thomas J. Watson fellow based in New Delhi, India. To obtain a complete copy of his 4500-word “Bangladesh Report,” more photos, or an audio recording of the meeting, reply to this post.