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At last, a voice for Bangladesh garment workers

New hotline aims to give support and rights advice

At last, a voice for Bangladesh garment workers

Workers in a garments factory in Dhaka (Munir Uz Zaman / AFP) reporter, Dhaka

July 16, 2013

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Arzina says she can’t forget the day she heard about the disaster. Prior to the world’s worst ever factory collapse, the owners of Rana Plaza in Dhaka had ignored warnings about cracks in the building.

Staff were ordered into work; 1,127 of them didn’t make it out alive. The collective trauma among the country’s labor force is apparent, and the fear for Arzina now is that her factory, owned by the same person, could be next.

“I can’t forget the incident. It’s like I’m taking life in the palm of my hand – I have to work anyway so I risk my life, but I’m scared," she said.

The 35-year-old has been working at Tuba Fashions Ltd for 12 years. Despite the years of service, her gripes are many: no drinking water in the factory, where they work nine hours a day making clothes for Walmart; verbal abuse from the management, who instruct the workers to sew at an unrelenting pace round the clock for little more than $2 a day. Any complaints are usually met with threats or a barrage of tormenting insults.

But that is beginning to improve, says Arzina, who spoke with from the office of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (roughly translated as the Independent Garment Workers Federation) in downtown Dhaka.

Since the Tazreen Factory fire in the Bangladeshi capital in November last year, which killed 112 workers, attention has turned towards empowering workers and educating them about their rights. Factory owners know that the world is scrutinizing any negligence and with it, Arzina says factory bosses have appeared more reluctant to abuse staff.

One of the most innovative projects to arrive in Bangladesh since the Tazreen Factory fire is LaborVoices, the brainchild of US State Department worker turned Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Kohl Gill. The initiative draws on the popularity of mobile phones in Bangladesh, which around two-thirds of the country’s 160 million population own.  

“LaborVoices will provide a mobile phone portal, via a Bangladeshi phone number, that workers can call to access information on their rights, and local programs and services, via an automated system,” he told Late last year the group signed a US $600,000 deal with Walmart, who had attracted controversy in the wake of the factory collapse for refusing to sign up to a legally binding agreement on worker safety that various other companies had supported. Having drawn flak, the company recently said it would implement a five-year factory safety plan, alongside other clothing giants such as Gap.

Yet the LaborVoices project goes where few other companies have, and provides a direct line for workers on the ground. “Workers can easily observe the safety issues in their own workplaces,” says Gill. Those observations will be recorded and listened to individually by a team tasked with handling any grievance issues through a pre-defined case management process.

“We gather these observations and share them among participating workers,” Gill says. “This way, workers can know which employers are safe according to the workers, who are there every day.”

Despite Gill stating that factory owners are contacted well before the group makes its initial approach to workers, the project may meet with resistance. The notion of a garment factory worker being given a voice is entirely new, and a daunting prospect for an industry that has built enormous profit from the use of cheap and disempowered labor.

Akbar Ali, 25, who also works at Tuba Fashions Ltd, says his bosses have tried to stop workers from participating in past training workshops. “If they came to know they were going to participate in training programs, they would give us extra work and not allow us to leave the factory.”

Instead, they devise other methods to leave the factory. “I know I would not get permission to go to training, so I told them [bosses] that there was a problem in the family and then I secretly went.”

Attempting any dialogue between worker and boss is risky. Nazma Akter, President of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, says that is one of the key problems in the garments industry.

At the age of 11, Akter was working in garments factory, sometimes pulling 14 hour shifts. She has risen to become one of the most formidable advocates for women’s rights in Bangladesh.

“Freedom of association is a big problem – that’s what we need to address,” she says at her office, where hundreds of workers have sought training in human rights education. “Worker-management communication is very important in our country. There should be some infrastructure to help it.

"The workers can complain to the management, but they will do whatever they like. This is a big problem. Nobody is listening to what the workers really want."

She is cautiously optimistic about the potential for LaborVoices to affect change in the industry. It plugs a gap left due to the fear that workers have when complaining to management.

What will be the first complaint workers lodge through the initiative? “My first complaint will be about pure drinking water,” says Arzina. Then she cocks her head, and the list continues. “Then I’ll complain about no daycare center for my children. And then fire safety equipment, then a first aid service.”

Had workers been able to notify outsiders of the cracks in the Rana Plaza building in April, then the course of events may have been radically different. For those victims, it is too late, but for the four million others forced to endure dangerous conditions in Bangladesh’s garments industry, the tide may be beginning to turn. 

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