In December 2008, Shahida Sarker, president of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) and Suma Sarker, NGWF activist, visited the UK on a tour for the No Sweat campaign. They spoke to Harry Glass.
Can you explain about the NGWF – its history and organisation?
Shahida: The National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) was founded in 1984. It is made up of 31 garment factory-based trade unions in Bangladesh. It now has 22,655 members.
Overall there are 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, with a workforce of around 2.8 million. There are 104 factory-based unions in total in the garment sector.
Why was the NGWF set up?
Shahida: The ready-made garment industry started in Bangladesh in 1978. There were some unions organised before this — for example among tailors, which were registered with the government. Some of these trade unionists understood that the industry would expand rapidly and that there were opportunities to organise larger numbers of workers. The NGWF re-registered with the government as an independent union for garment workers. It was the first formally do so.
What is the relationship between NGWF and other garment workers unions e.g. Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF)?
Shahida: The Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) was established more recently [registered in 1997], with the help of the Solidarity Center, the international department of the AFL-CIO union federation in the United States. The NGWF is separate from BIGUF, but we work together on common issues — for example in organising garment workers in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs), which was illegal until recently.
The NGWF did have discussions about relations with the AFL-CIO and did work more closely with them for a year (during 2006). The NGWF felt that the AFL-CIO was pushing its own agenda, whereas we wanted to be independent, and concentrate on our own workers and our own country. For example the AFL-CIO does not support garments produced in Bangladesh having duty-free access to the US market, which the NGWF demands. That’s why we stopped collaborating with them.
Is the NGWF independent of political parties in Bangladesh?
Shahida: The NGWF is an independent trade union in Bangladesh. All the big political parties — the Awami League (AL), the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Jatiya Party (JP), have their own trade unions. Each of these parties has its own trade union to maintain control over workers, to maintain a hold over the labour sector when they are in power. The NGWF doesn’t have ties to these parties because we don’t want to be bound by them when they are in power, or to be associated with their policies.
Can you explain about the anti-union laws in Bangladesh?
Shahida: Even though the laws were changed in 2006, unions still need to have 51% of the workers in a factory before they can register with the government. Unions are the only bodies that can bargain collectively under Bangladeshi law — workers have to go through the union even to go to court over a work problem. But union activists face victimisation and the sack when they try to organise unions.
Since the state of emergency was declared [in January 2007] unions have been prevented from registering, even from holding meetings. These restrictions were relaxed in the summer this year, to allow small informal meetings of less than 50 people — but many restrictions remain.
There is no right to strike. The law bans strikes in the garment sector for three years for new firms. Some firms have closed for a few months and then reopened to keep the no-strike ban in place.
What are conditions like for workers in the garment sector?
Shahida: Workers live below the official poverty line. Salaries have worsened in recent years because of inflation. A skilled operator like Suma earns less than £30 a month — not enough to feed a family.
Suma: Many garment workers work for 12 to 14 hours a day, from 8am to 10pm, often for seven days a week to complete an order. Holidays and time off are ignored in many factories. My husband, who also worked at a garment factory, died as a result of a factory fire. I got no maternity leave during my pregnancy, no compensation for the death of my husband. I didn’t even get medical leave while suffering from jaundice. My pay is so meagre that I cannot afford to keep my child with me – she lives with my mother in a village.
Shahida: Women garment workers also face sexual harassment from managers. Workers are more aware of the issue now, and have fought against it collectively. Unions and NGOs have organised training, older workers have supported younger women, and we’ve put up posters in factories.
Suma: Health and safety is also a problem. There are still concerns about fires, and fire exits being blocked. Workers have long suffered finger injuries – though this has improved since needle guards were introduced, after some buyers insisted on it. The lighting in the factories is very bright, making temperatures very hot. There’s no ventilation. The machines are loud and workers don’t have access to clean drinking water. Toilet breaks are not allowed and workers often travel long distances from the slums to get to the factory.
Can you explain about the state of emergency?
Shahida: For nearly two years since the state of emergency was declared [January 2007] unions have had to keep a low profile and our lips sealed. The police and the special forces have been very active — even May Day and international women’s day celebrations have been suppressed.
Some trade unionists have been arrested — particularly in the power and bank sectors, but not in the garment sector. We’ve been questioned, but not arrested, as they’ve found no pretext.
The emergency laws have banned all forms of protest and all strikes. Even three workers together are not allowed. But as real wages have been eroded, there have been protests, strikes, riots and highways blocked. The police have attacked workers at these protests.
Why has the state of emergency been relaxed?
Shahida: Workers protests have mainly been about wages and economic issues, not about the government in power. But this fight has shown that the government can’t keep workers quiet. Workers protests have contributed to relaxing the state of emergency and forcing the government to hold elections.
Many people are predicting that the Awami League will win the elections, but this will not benefit workers. All the political parties make promises to workers, but don’t deliver in power. In these elections the AL has formed a coalition with the Communist Party and the Workers’ Party. Some say these parties could be a voice for workers in government. But they are Stalinist parties. [Note: the Awami League did win.]
Does the NGWF stand candidates, or support others in elections?
Shahida: The NGWF discussed standing its secretary as a candidate in the elections. However we didn’t have the money and when others were released from prison, we decided against. Would we stand in future? This is unlikely. The elections are often corrupt. Workers are bribed for their vote — and they will take the money from the big parties because they are so poor. We don’t have a vision for the future yet.