Augment democracy for workers
As we approach two years since the horrific Rana Plaza tragedy where over 1100 workers lost their lives, and countless others are surviving under miserable conditions without employment or meager source of support, the question that remains: How do we avoid another Rana Plaza? We have to increase democracy for workers both in the workplace and in their government. Had there been a union at the factories at Rana Plaza, workers may have opted to refuse to work that day. Had there been more elected representative reflecting the interests of labor in the Government of Bangladesh, then, we would have better labour laws to protect efforts by workers to organize. If consumers abroad were mobilised to lobby their own governments to regulate their multinationals, then global brands may be held legally accountable for their failure to create safe workplaces based on their business model of seeking cheap labour. Democracy demands that citizens have an active say in decisions and policies that affect their lives. In Bangladesh, workers need democracy at their workplace, and in their government.
Unions are a form of democratic governance at the workplace. While we espouse democracy for civil society, it is curious how even the best meaning is virulently opposed to unions often citing violence and corruption as the reason. Yet, despite our imperfect democratic forms of government, we never abandon democracy as a guiding principle for our lives, and so why shouldn't democracy operate in the working lives of garment workers. Mechanisms should exist for workers to demand improved working conditions that include wages, benefits like maternity leave, and affordable housing. Through unions, workers can address inequities in their workplace just as voting and elections are a process by which citizens can register their demands to their government.
Obstacles and threats to organising is a failure to allow workers to have democratic rights, and are in part based on our classism and sexism in our society. When we deprive women of equal participation in our society, of course, it is easy to deny their participation in their workplaces as garment workers. It is not surprising that from my studies women are the most ardent supporters and leaders of unions because they understand that through unions they are able to address both class and gender inequities in our society.
Since Rana Plaza, there has been a focus on the Accord and Alliance, two international workplace safety programs as the focal point of advocacy to improve workers' rights. While these programs are helpful to improve factory conditions, they will not completely address safety without fully engaging workers or creating structures that empower workers to address safety issues themselves. My research has shown that workers are not aware of these programs, and have not been fully engaged in them. This is a huge shortcoming for these programs.
Moreover, while consumers abroad have been mobilised and engaged to support the Accord, they have not pushed to lobby their own governments to change the ways their own companies do business in Bangladesh. Democratic, including electoral and governmental spaces, have not been activated internationally around Rana Plaza.
When asked about avoiding Rana Plaza, it is not surprising that workers uniformly demand unions in every factory. They demand that global brands source from factories that have worker elected and constituted unions. If factories provide wages aligned with workers' living costs as well as essential benefits like health care this will address some quality of life concerns that often result in high social costs for workers' families. In essence, what workers want is greater say over their workplace lives, which can translate to an improved quality of life.
Outside of the workplace, there is no political organization that can demand for better laws for workers in Bangladesh. Many of the representatives in government are garment owners who are invested in protecting their own and industry's economic interests. In the on-going Dhaka City elections, who is the labour candidate? Babul Akter, of Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, spoke to me of the need to evaluate political candidates on the grounds of policies they make that improve workers' lives. He is right. Workers need a political voice to lobby for their interests in government that is independent from partisan politics.
Outside of the factory gates, workers need democracy in laws and policies that impact their working lives, and unless there are candidates that are explicitly taking on a labor agenda, we will continue to see laws that favor owners' interests over that of workers' lives. Both at the workplace through unions and outside of the factory through an independent political platform, workers need democracy. Without institutions protecting their democratic interests, and most importantly, their lives, another Rana Plaza is inevitable, and we will sadly have new tragedies to mourn.
The writer is an American Institute for Bangladesh Studies (AIBS) fellow researching the garment industry post Rana Plaza.