Partner Spotlight: Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity
Bangladesh employs 3.4 million garment workers in 4,200 ready-made-garments (RMG) factories that produce US$12.59 billion in export earnings, representing 78% of the country’s total. Contributing nine percent of the gross domestic product, the industry is directly or indirectly responsible for the employment of 24 million people. The minimum wage is $43/month or about $10/week. This equals 20 cents an hour, the lowest wage, by far, of any major garment producing country. Studies show that this wage fails to cover the cost of the minimum nutritional needs of even a single worker, let alone her family.
The Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity was borne out of a worker movement to form the first trade union in a factory sourcing for a garment retailer. Since the early 1990s, the BCWS has had a long tradition of advancing workers’ rights by documenting labor abuses and violations and strengthening the capacity of workers to advocate for themselves and advance their own interests. BCWS is highly regarded by labor rights advocates world-wide and by apparel companies as well. Levi Strauss
& Co. has called BCWS “a globally respected labor rights organization, which has played a vital role in documenting and working to remedy labor
violations in the apparel industry in Bangladesh.”
As part of a recent ILRF funded project, the BCWS has developed a leadership Skills Training program for women garment workers. The program is aimed at encouraging workers to form unions, and BCWS has also compiled and distributed posters and booklets to educate women workers about their rights. Under the leadership program, BCWS has engaged in direct training initiatives with 48 female workers from 14 garment factories. There are also 4150 indirect beneficiaries from 14 garment factories who will be reached through this ongoing process. Through the leadership training programs, female workers have been able to learn about labor rights, domestic labor laws, labor standards, Wal-Mart (and other) Codes of Conducts, campaigns and networking possibilities.
The project has been successful in providing women workers with a better/solid understanding of their rights and the legal protections that they can invoke to defend them. It has also been successful in educating women workers about codes of conduct (in particular, the Wal-Mart Code) which they previously had no knowledge of. Women now have the confidence to ask factory management about their codes of conduct, to question the failure to implement their commitments and to negotiate with management to defend their rights. To do this, trained female workers have taken the initiative to organize their respective factory workers and to form female-led unions (note: 85% of the workers are women). Many women who hadn’t had the chance to attend the leadership training programs were able to benefit from BCWS reading and educational materials and the organization’s broader awareness raising campaigns. Among 14 factories, 4 became ready for union registration. This is a truly remarkable victory, especially given the current political situation in Bangladesh which has served to further limit the ability of workers to defend their rights.
Following advocacy for a higher minimum wage and providing education about union formation per the request of workers at Nassa Group and Envoy Group, subcontractors for Walmart, JC Penney, Sears/Kmart, among others, staff and members of BCWS had fabricated criminal charges brought against them, which led to the jailing of two BCWS staff in August of 2010, until they were released on bail a month later following international outrage. These charges include the possibility of lifetime imprisonment or death penalty. In 2012, ten of the original eleven falsified charges still remain; for full story see our report, Enemies of the Nation or Human Rights Defenders? Fighting Poverty Wages in Bangladesh.
In April of 2012 the body of Aminul Islam, BCWS staff, was found bearing signs of brutal torture. Aminul is a former garment worker who had received numerous death threats and had previously been detained and tortured by Bangladeshi Security Services in 2010.