Trade Unions

Trade Unions – Mohammad Hasan In its long journey, readymade garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh has been making a headway quietly but steadily. The industry has always enjoyed a silent support from all the sections of the society as the sector has ensured the highest job opportunities, specially for the least privileged women in this country. As a foreign currency-earner, the industry ranks number one and has been maintaining this status for years. The RMG sector nowadays has become the focal point of economists, intellectuals, journalists and bureaucrats for discussing its current affairs and future prospects. Obviously the recent incidents and anarchy in the industry have triggered this interest among these quarters. Expert opinions are filling the columns of almost all daily newspapers and late- night TV talk shows galore on various channels.

We guess many of these commentators have not ever stepped into a garment factory themselves Here this writer would like to refer to a fairly recent comment of a cabinet minister who said that labour unions would be allowed to operate in the garment factories in order to get the industry out of labour unrest. This writer has been serving the garment sector for the last 18 years as an employee. From his own experience this scribe wants to humbly oppose it. Implementation of such a decision in our RMG industry would be suicidal. Immediately after the independence almost all of our industries, banks, and financial institutions were nationalised as the government of that time was more or less influenced by the practices in the USSR (now Russia and its neighbouring countries) and in India.

Trade unions with political affiliations are hardly bound by logic and reason. Union leaders compel the organisations recruit more workers/employees than actually required and thus make the industries/organisations less profitable or losing concerns. Trade union leaders become the supreme authority and they try to become boss of their bosses. They arrange job transfers, promotions etc. among the workers/employees not on their merit or skill but their loyalty to the union. Thus the organisation gradually becomes sick of the union leaders who become rich and richer. In the mid-seventies, we entered a total capitalistic economy and the government started privatising the nationalised industries. But character of the trade unions of those organisations remained unchanged. So privatisation really could not save those industries. We all know what the trade unions are doing in our nationalised commercial banks.

Everybody knows how the trade union leaders bade farewell to the immediate past governor of the Bangladesh Bank, our central bank. With this kind of reality in hand, our precious RMG sector can hardly afford the traditional model of trade unions in its factories. We think Workers’ Participatory Committees (WPC) can be the best substitute for traditional trade unions. These WPCs in the RMG units can make a very good bridge between the management and the workers. Elected WPCs are already in action in many of the factories in the country and they are encouraging examples for those who are yet to introduce WPC in their factories. The presence of a genuine bargaining agency can always help the industry to grow. A bargaining agent without any political affiliation and delinked from any foreign or local NGOs can actually help any industry operate successfully and profitably by ensuring a win-win situation for both the employees and the employers.

One would observe that our politicians, intellectuals and journalists have now found another topic of interest from the industry to rave about: minimum wages for the garment workers. While commenting on the matter, many remain unaware of some of the facts about the RMG industry in the country. To comply with the buyers’ code of conduct and laws of land, the workers get some benefits which they did not get at the beginning of the industry in the country. Nowadays all compliant factories ensure and practise health and safety standards, primary medical facilities, drinkable water, refreshments, transport, free or discounted lunch, group insurance etc. for the workers. Some factories provide additional props for their workers which incur a lot of money, time and effort from the part of the owners.

These include running fair price shops for essential commodities, arrangements of annual feasts/picnics, cultural functions with the participation of the workers, offering free education and medical treatment to the workers and their children etc. Your can read more about Child Labour in RMG Sector – an Alternative View

When we talk about minimum wages of the garment workers, we usually refer to the entry level apprentices with no experiences and little or no education. These inexperienced and unproductive apprentices get training on operation, local laws, health and safety etc. free of charge and get paid by the factories during the training and apprenticeship period. These apprentices are absorbed as permanent workforces at the expiry of their three-month probation period and get entitled for higher wages. Apprentices/trainee workforces constitute not more than 10 per cent of the total workforce in a garment manufacturing unit. Rest of the workers (who are the vast majority) usually get wages much higher than the workers in any other similar industry. These facts often escape attention of most of us who seem to take immense interest in RMG affairs and pass sweeping comments from time to time. Workers are paid their wages, benefits, increments, bonuses, all legal and extra benefits from the factories they work for.

As and when a crisis breaks out in the industry, the apex business bodies of RMG like the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters (BGMEA)/Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) point their fingers to some of the NGOs and ask for government help. These problems can be easily managed by the apex bodies themselves without any external intervention. Only thing is that they need to be more associated with the wellbeing of the workers. Obviously a gap exists between the workers and the management and this gap has been filled up by the so-called NGOs. A strong communication bridge has been made between the workers of RMG and NGOs. In no way NGOs can be a representative of the workers but unfortunately they are at the negotiating table with the owners and the government.

But there are some factories which are still behind to implement minimum wages and benefits. These types of factories and apex trade bodies must take immediate steps to remove the shortcomings. At the same time, we should also keep in mind that the vested groups are always searching for leaks and gaps. The government and apex trade bodies should take steps to prevent anarchy by plugging these holes. The NGOs are taking the opportunity where BGMEA/BKMEA fails. For any arbitration, most of the workers send letters to their employers using letterhead pad and address of the NGOs they belong to as members. As a result, concerned factories get themselves engaged with those NGOs or external labour unions to settle the issues bypassing BGMEA/BKMEA or the Labour Court.

It is needless to say that these parlays usually leave out the NGOs or unions, the beneficiaries. The apex bodies of RMG industry can manage/handle these issues easily. These two associations of the owners need to come closer to their workers, the main driver of the industry. Supposedly these two associations are financially solvent ones. So money should not be a problem if a strong will and proper management are there to set up arbitration cum recreation centers across areas like Mirpur, Savar, Ashulia, Gazipur, Narayanganj and other places where most of the RMG workers reside. Proper management and sincerity of these centres can divert the workers from seeing the NGOs and alike who are not part of the sorrows and cheers of the industry. Activists claim that more widespread trade unionism will bring many benefits to the RMG workers.

They say that unions will give workers an effective voice against unsafe working conditions, unacceptably low wages and exploitation by unscrupulous factory workers. Unions will, the claim goes, solve the problems of exploitation and workplace safety that were supposed to be solved by the mechanisms of social compliance guidelines and inspections but were not. According to them, the social compliance mechanism proved ineffective because it was driven by external actors; the trade union mechanism will be more effective because it is internal – the workers will be given effective tools to demand and obtain benefits for themselves. Unfortunately, these activists are ignoring some inconvenient facts. While unions can act as a countervailing force against employer oppression, these unions are rarely conducive to improved productivity and economic growth.

As a result, union membership number, influence and popularity have been declining worldwide. Union density in the United States is only 11 per cent and declining from 35 per cent in the 1950s. By contrast union density in Bangladesh is 35 per cent. So it is somewhat strange that many US activists and stakeholders are urging Bangladesh to adopt measures to increase union density: they should probably first try to increase it in the United States where unions are about to disappear. Already unions there are confined mostly to the public sector and to declining industries such as autos and steel. Many economists feel that powerful unions were instrumental and destroying the profitability and economic viability of these industries in the US, leading to falling investment, growth and the eventual relocation of these industries to other countries.

Today, the US auto industry exists only after two of the three major firms went bankrupt in 2009 and had to be bailed out by the US government. In addition, employment in the auto industry within the US has be relocated from strong union states such as Michigan to southern non-union states such as Tennessee which historically had no involvement in the car industry. Unemployment in Michigan has risen sharply and the city of Detroit has lost employment and population in a catastrophic manner. Any student of labour relations in South Asia knows that unions have a troubled history in this region.

For instance, strikes are one of the most effective tools that unions have to wrest concessions from employers. Unfortunately in South Asia, unions have a history of enforcing strikes with muscle power and bringing businesses to a halt whenever they want to demonstrate their clout and influence. In the late nineties, persistent industrial unrest crippled the state-owned banking sector in Bangladesh, adding up to a costly half a billion dollars annually in lost hours of work. A report submitted by a government task force at that time said 30 per cent of the nearly 40,000 bank employees were sitting idle. “In the name of trade unions, union leaders are virtually running a parallel administration, controlling postings, promotions and transfers of bank employees,” the report said. “The huge amount of outstanding bank loans was the result of the influence of the trade unionists in the banks’ lending activities,” the report said. Both the task force as well as the World Bank advised the government to temporarily suspend trade unions in banks.

There is a long tradition of ties between political parties and labour unions in South Asia, and fragmented, highly politicised unions appear to be a characteristic of industrial relations in most of the region. Most disruptions in large public enterprises in Bangladesh over the last few years have been caused by inter-union rivalries. Disruptions in the workplaces due to unions’ political activities are hardly conducive to investment and growth. Politicised unions can also be obstructionists that wield their political power against socially important reforms that may hurt their members. India’s unions continue to criticise the government’s recent liberalisation efforts, despite the apparent successes since 1991.

The unions have organised nationwide general strikes to oppose the commercialisation of state enterprises which are aimed at making India’s economy more open and increasing economic growth which brings benefits to all. India’s unions are propping up that part of the economy that is most in need of reform.