The weeklong protests in the apparel hub in Gazipur, Ashulia, Savar and Mirpur ebbed away yesterday, a day after the government announced revised wages in six grades for garment workers.
Apart from one or two incidents in Ashulia, where a few thousand workers took to the streets before being driven away by the police, the situation was normal elsewhere. Apparently, the unrest in the country's largest foreign export earning sector has been resolved.
But industry insiders say weaknesses in trade unions in the sector have been exposed by the way things have been handled from the start of negotiations for the 2018 wage board to the lead-up to the protests. The sector has suffered frequent demonstrations in recent months.
Any crisis in the industry should be resolved through a joint effort from union leaders, factory management and the government and the workers are to be conveyed the message. It helps quell any unrest in a healthy garment sector.
However, the latest spell of protests against disparity in wages was not guided by the union leaders and it was evident when the demonstrating workers refused to return to work despite repeated calls from the leaders.
A couple of union leaders, who were part of the tripartite committee formed to handle the situation, admitted that the protesters were not paying any heed to them.
The workers openly said they did not trust their top leadership. Some even branded the leaders as “promoters” of the owners.
They said their “true leaders” had been on the run since December 2016 when unrest hit the sector as workers began protests demanding a new wage board with a minimum pay of Tk 16,000.
As a result, agitating workers over the last week did not follow the directives of the union leaders who engaged in negotiations with the government and the owners for revision of the wage structure sitting in Dhaka.
Following the labour unrest at Ashulia and Savar in December 2016, many local union leaders were arrested. On their release, some of them started working either for factory management or the government, the workers alleged, adding those who wanted to work in favour of the workers had to flee as cases were filed against them.
Talking to The Daily Star, Montoo, an operator at a garment factory in Ashulia, said many of the workers did not listen to their union leaders during the recent protests. “We don't have any trust in the union leaders.”
Echoing Montoo's view, many of the workers, who participated in the protest, said the union leaders did not guide them properly.
Khairul Mamun Mintoo, organising secretary of the Garment Workers Trade Union Kendra, said the government and the owners did not allow any mainstream union activities in Ashulia and Savar areas over the last two years.
As a result, the gap between the unions and the workers widened and during the peak of the latest unrest, the leaders failed to play any part in resolving the situation.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, agreed that trade unions have weaknesses in terms of leadership as most of the unions are not organised.
He said there are many reasons for the weaknesses. For instance, the number of active union leaders in more than 4,500 garment factories stood at 750 after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013.
But the number of such active unions is around 350 now.
Around 350 unions for more than 4,500 active garment factories are too scanty, said Amin, who led union leaders in the negotiation of wage structure. The factory managements also do not encourage formation of unions, he said.
So the cordial industrial relations which were supposed to be in place had not established in the sector even 40 years after garment trade began in the country, he added. Currently, the number of federations of unions in the garment sector is 60.
In almost every factory, the elected participation committees are present for the sake of compliance, he said. In most of the cases those participation committees are inactive and only exist on papers under pressure from buyers, he said.
“The government and International Labour Organisation have recently been advocating for social dialogues for resolving the conflicts in the sector. But still I believe there is no alternative to trade unions in lowering the conflicts,” he said, adding, “Healthy practice of trade unionism can resolve 90 percent of the conflicts.”
“If workers want, they are allowed to have unions as per the labour law. Even they can apply for unionism through online applications,” said Siddiqur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
The government relaxed the minimum participation requirement of workers in formation of union to 20 percent from the previous 30 percent to encourage it, Siddiqur added.
Meanwhile, the ILO Country Office in Bangladesh in a statement welcomed the decision to revise the wages.
“We acknowledge the genuine efforts of all parties, led by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, to work towards setting minimum wages at an appropriate level and to reach a consensus. Through this tripartite process of dialogue confidence is being built and we call upon all parties to help the industry resume its activities,” says Tuomo Poutiainen, ILO country director for Bangladesh.