When Kona, a textile worker in Bangladesh, tried to help her co-workers win better conditions on the job, she was harassed to the point where she and her husband were forced into hiding. But through the assistance of the garment workers’ union federation, which negotiated a resolution with management, Kona ultimately resumed her life and work.

“Later, I could join my work and go back to my home with BIGUF’s (Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation) help,” she said. “I am continuing my struggle and will continue it until the last day of my life.”

Now general secretary of Masco Industries Ltd. Workers Union, which was formed in late 2011, Kona took part in BIGUF’s Eighth Biannual Convention and Council in Chittagong. Some 500 delegates gathered for the December 7 convention.

Some 280 women were among the participants, who included leaders from national garment workers federations, the Oil and Gas Workers Federation, Transcom Beverage Workers and Employees Union, and the Workers Association of Chittagong EPZ factories, along with allies such as labor lawyers.

The memory of the 112 Tazreen workers who died in last month’s factory fire infused the convention, which opened with a moment of silence to pay tribute to them and to other deceased workers and union leaders.

The conference focused on organizing and forming unions, which in the wake of deadly fires at Tazreen and other garment factories, is especially needed at the factory level, said BIGUF President Moriom Akter. She asked that “all our colleagues from other federations emphasize forming unions,” a call to action all union leaders said they planned to follow.

Discussing how the Tazreen fire highlighted the need for union organizing to challenge factory owners who did not follow the nation’s job safety laws, Rintu Barua pointed out that “it is always the workers who are arrested when they protest.” Barua, the general secretary of Global Garments Ltd. Workers and Employees Union, a BIGUF affiliate, added that “the owners are never questioned. Nobody ask them why the workers of his or her factory are protesting.”

Ruhul Amin, general secretary of Bangladesh Federation of Workers Solidarity, urged workers to refuse to work in factories where the fire escape routes are locked by management.

Ultimately, preventing death and injury on the job means workers—whose lives are at risk and who know best how dangerous their workplace can be—must be able to assert their rights, organize unions with their co-workers, raise safety concerns and demand better working conditions according to their best judgment.

As Moriom told convention delegates, “Unions make us strong.”

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the News from The Solidarity Center