Low wages, no safety – Nazma Akter founder of Awaj Foundation on how Bangladesh’s garment factory workers live and work

Former child worker and labor leader Nazma Akter delves into the vulnerability and injustices faced by Bangladesh’s garment factory workers

Nazma Akter and Awaj Foundation fighting for workers’ rights in Bangladesh

Having witnessed the ongoing problems at her factory, Nazma Akter shaped her motivation to improve workers’ rights in Bangladesh’s garment sector. As founder and executive director of NGO Awaj Foundation which shaped her motivation to improve; the Bangladeshi labor leader and trade unionist Nazma highlights the value of a stronger legal framework to help workers improve their standards of living. The foundation aims to amplify worker’s rights to decent working conditions.

Comparing what’s been achieved such as few more safety measures; through attempts at reform to the burden that the pandemic put on the lowest tier of the RMG sector; Nazma continues her call for more accountability on the part of brands and owners. The activist and leader revealed her hopes for more open dialogue between workers and management. As well as the need for consumers to be more aware of the injustices faced by the workers who make their clothes. Nazma also high- lights the work that Awaj Foundation has done in achieving these exact goals and everything left to accomplish so that the individuals toiling away in Bangladesh’s factories aren’t simply surviving on less than minimum, but thriving in their lives. 

The lack of transparency – the disaster of Dhaka garment factory 

To achieve more transparency in the supply chain, the brand has to disclose the price that is offering. Subcontract needs to banned. The union rights of the workers have to be ensured so that they can reach the owners with their demands. Through social dialogue, strong implementation of labor law will ensure more transparency in the supply chain. Boycotting big brands is not the answer. For instance, we need to enforce legal binding between brands and owners and workers. The law is not that strong here. Where the law must be on the side of the workers, there the law is here for the businessmen.

The labor is cheap here. It makes it easier for global supply chain to freelance from Bangladesh. This is because of its cheap labor, low wages and less opportunity for jobs. When the living wage is low, the life standard of the workers became vulner- able by default. On April 24, 2013, Dhaka garment factory – an eight-story commercial building called Rana Plaza – collapsed.

It was a structural failure that occurred in the Savar Upazila of Dhaka District, Bangladesh. The search for the dead ended on May 13, 2013, with a death toll of 1,134. After the Rana Plaza disaster, they dealt with some crises and also some legal steps, initiating safety Measures. Having signed the accord, is an achievement for us. If we consider the living standard of workers lives, it has not changed a bit. Still the workers have no housing, education, food, sanitation. As long as the owners are not responsible for the well being of the workers, condition won’t improve. 

The impact of COVID-19 – rights of factory workers in Bangladesh 

COVID-19 pandemic hit hard ready-made garments sector in Bangladesh. Loosing over $1.5 billion worth of business. This, in turn, affected the livelihoods of over 1.2 million garment workers. Many workers in the sector weren’t paid from March 2020 to May 2020. Factories laid off workers, resulting in their loss of livelihoods. Workers faced starvation or death. Their meager incomes were barely able to sustain themselves, and they often had no savings to tide them over difficult times. Most workers were uncertain about how they would live in the coming months.

They were worried that they would not be able to afford the treatment or medication of coronavirus afflicted family members. As a grassroots organization with an extensive network amongst garment workers and their families, Awaj Foundation witnessed the impact of the pandemic first-hand, and worked on relief efforts, advocacy, and awareness campaigns for the workers to support them and their families. While some factories recommenced operations in April, they opened only in part, as they did not have enough orders to justify a full reopening. Most factories remained closed during this time for the same reason. This resulted in the retrenchment of many workers. Many factories laid off a large number of workers, and most workers were not paid in full. 

Facing gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the workplace

Among other challenges, the workers in ready-made garments sector face gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, women workers face extreme discrimination the field of work, home or outside. When it comes to leadership, women are in a position where this male dominated society can rule. These issues have not been addressed in the past, but step by step the scenario is changing. For elimination of gender based violence and sexual harassment, Awaj Foundation is playing a role in campaign of ratification of ILO C10.

During 16 days of activism, Awaj Foundation organized several campaigns and rallies, arranged physical meetings with important key holders, factory management with an aim to advocate for ratification of ILO C190. The consumer’s need to be aware of the negative impact of fast fashion on the environment and understand the capitalist approach of brand owners towards the workers, how they are just aiming towards profits and all. For instance, if we, as a consumer, can control the urge to consume high fashion products, the brands will have to find alternatives. If we start to talk about the injustice and discrimination the workers are facing, the world will take notice. 

Lampoon, Workers protesting during covid, photography RMG worker
Workers protesting during covid, photography RMG worker

The value of unionizing – the Awaj Foundation 

In order to create women leaders, Awaj Foundation develops their capacities in rights aware- ness, communications, negotiation and bargaining, computer literacy and paralegal training. Awaj Foundation also mentors union members and leaders from SGSF. A sister concern of Awaj Foundation following their capacity development, and supports their professional development and increased leadership initiatives.

Awaj Foundation started with the will and determination of a one-woman leader. It is thus developing the next generation of women leaders who will work for the welfare of workers at both national and international levels. Between 2016-2021, women labor leaders trained by Awaj Foundation were able to negotiate six collec- tive bargaining agreements (CBAs). These CBAs contained ground-breaking provisions such as free ultra-sound checkups for pregnant workers, relief from physically demanding work in late months of pregnancy and annual wage increases and number of paid holidays higher than the legally required amount. 

Awaj Foundation after the Rana Plaza disaster

When it’s only related to profit, people tend to forget things. After the Rana Plaza, thousands
of advocacies made it possible to sign the accord. Hopefully the Accord will play a long-lasting role in ensuring safety of Ready-Made Garments workers. The brands and owners need to be responsible. There is no accountability, just show off. Furthermore, we strive to create harmonious industrial relations through social dialogue between workers and management. We train workers on productive negotiation and how to channel their demands in a fruitful way.

At the same time, Awaj Foundation train factory management on their duties and obligations towards workers. To date, it has provided training to around 2,000 factory management members on workers’ rights under national and international legal frameworks. This approach between workers and management to create a better negotiating environment has been very fruitful. Between 2016 and 2021, there were thirteen collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) signed in the RMG sector in Bangladesh. These CBAs were negotiated by women labor leaders and together they cover over 16,000 workers. To conclude, the CBAs negotiated with the help of Awaj Foundation are exceptional not only because they were negotiated by women leaders but they also contain some ground-breaking provisions. 

Nazma Akter

Bangladeshi trade unionist and founder of the Awaj Foundation.

Awaj Foundation

Awaj Foundation is a grassroots labour rights NGO with over 600,000 worker members across Bangladesh.

Malvika Padin

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.