Garment workers at Zilani Apparels Ltd., in Rampura, Dhaka, Bangladesh, formed a union in August with the help of the Bangladesh Federation of Workers’ Solidarity (BFWS) and now are waiting for the Labor Department to register it. More than 50 percent of the 350 garment workers at Zilani Apparels have joined together after recognizing that their individual efforts to improve wages and working conditions were not effective, says Fatema, a committee member.

“We raised our problems individually with management so many times… but they never listened to us,” Fatema said.

The workers, who make men’s and women’s shirts for export to the United States and Europe, say low wages and an unfair salary scale are their biggest concerns.

“We are not getting the amount which we are supposed to get,” says Maksuda, joint secretary of the proposed union.  “We receive a lower salary than new workers, even though we are more capable.”

Wage discrimination is common, according to Jakia, publicity secretary of the proposed union. “I am very skilled in my work and have been working in the garment industry for 15 or 16 years, and with Zilani for four years. Many times I requested a salary increase. But management told me that they won’t increase my salary like others because they know my involvement with the union.” Jakia says the company transferred her to another production floor and gave her a new starting date to avoid providing benefits.

The garment workers also must confront a lack of job security. Once hired, they say management demands their signatures on blank pieces of paper, which the workers fear will be used to trump up charges if the company wants to fire them.

Although pregnant workers often are either terminated or forced her to resign and typically receive no maternity benefits, the workers won their first victory as a united team in August when they helped a woman get maternity benefits. Parvin, a seven-year employee, was eight months pregnant when management tried to force her to resign. Her co-workers requested that she receive the maternity benefits to which she was entitled. When the company refused, the workers sent a notice to the factory through BFWS. After receiving the notice, management paid her maternity leave.

The garment workers realized they needed to form a union when they attempted a work stoppage in May to force management to discuss their concerns. After a manager convinced most of the line workers to return to the job, says Rubina, who was elected president of the proposed union, “all of us realized that we need to be united to achieve our demands and we need to do something else which is effective.” That is when they met with BFWS.

Since then, leaders of the effort to unionize encouraged co-workers to join the union and continued to press for annual leave payment and a salary increase. On August 1,they again stopped work to get management to talk with them. But this time, they had the BFWS to support them. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA) also joined the discussions, and workers and management ultimately signed a 16-point agreement. Management has so far only implemented two of the 16 requests, including paying some annual leave and a bonus for the Muslim holiday of Eid ul Fitr.

Like those at Zilani, garment workers across Bangladesh are taking a stand for decent work.  In response, police fire rubber bullets and tear gas at workers rallying outside their workplaces.

Despite the significant obstacles to forming a union, at Zilani, the workers remain optimistic and hopeful about the changes they can make and the new strength they will have with a union.

“We know that getting union’s registration will not be easy, but we will not give up until seeing it through,” says Ruhul Amin, BFWS general secretary.

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the News from The Solidarity Center