26 April, 2017

Giving a voice to Bangladeshi Women Garment Workers

Nazma Akter, of the AWAJ Foundation
by Nazma Akter, of the AWAJ Foundation, a union for female workers in Bangladesh, giving us an insight into how they are making improvements to textile manufacturing in the country.

In December 2016 more than 1,600 workers from a number of garment factories in Ashulia were sacked for alleged involvement in demonstrations over pay. Many more were arrested and imprisoned for protesting for fairer wages.

What has changed since last year?

Throughout the crisis in Ashulia AWAJ worked with a number of unions, and most have now signed agreements with their companies to increase salary and welfare benefits (including things like day care centers, food, grievances etc.). 

Factories with functioning unions were not so involved in the crisis, but instead leveraged their power to pass agreements with management that increased their power and benefits. Although the event was very difficult for the industry, it also served as an example of how unions can help stabilize the industry for the benefit of management and workers. A number of new unions have formed as a result and we hope to increase this over the next year. 

What are the current developments?

We will continue to work stabilizing the industry in the wake of the crisis. There is increasing price pressure in the industry, which is impacting on worker well being and this must be addressed. 

Saying that, many things in the industry are improving. Women's participation is increasing, alongside improved safety and security, and factory infrastructure. Benefits for women are also growing, with greater recognition and implementation of worker rights such as maternity leave. Workers themselves are more actively aware of, and are addressing decent working conditions. 

What obstacles currently still exist?

Low wages remain the key issue in the industry. This means living conditions and nutrition among workers continue to be of a very low standard and there is also a lot of pressure on workers to do excessive hours. 

It is also hard for workers to remain in the industry after the age of 40 due to high production pressure. Women are under-represented among middle management and decision makers.
Transparency in the industry is also still at a low level, so standards and subcontracting can be hard to manage. Another problem is the limited access to education for children, which reduces opportunities for the next generation to reach a good standard of earning and living. 

Are there positive changes on the ground?

I started working in the garment industry in 1986 and have seen a huge number of positive changes since that time. In the last year alone, we have had many successes, with more engagement and awareness among workers, a greater number of unions forming, and great improvements in factory infrastructure and safety. 

The area that lags is wages. These remain far too low, while living costs are only increasing. Price pressure from brands is also intensifying, which means factory management have no option but to put increasing pressure on workers. 

We need to focus our efforts on better profit distribution in the supply chain, particularly between the brands and the factories, who need to be making enough money to pay workers fairly and maintain decent working standards.  

Find out how the new Fairtrade textile standard can help improve life for garment workers. 

Fairtrade Blog