NGOisation of labour movement

Nafisa Tanjeem | Published: 00:11, Mar 26,2021


— New Age

THE garment and textile industry is the leading export sector in Bangladesh, accounting for 80 per cent of the country’s total export and employing more than 4.4 million workers. The trajectory of garment labour organising in Bangladesh has been historically determined by complex interactions between local, regional, and global actors and institutions. Fifty years after the independence, it is perhaps time to think critically about the major historical and political trends, which shaped various priorities and strategies of garment labour organising and experiences of our garment workers, to figure out where we want to go from here.


Labour organising in Pakistan era

THE garment industry started to flourish in Bangladesh in the 1980s. However, trade unionising during the rule of West Pakistan and in post-independence Bangladesh significantly influenced trends and characteristics of the garment industry and garment labour organising. Zia Rahman and Tom Langford (2012) conducted a detailed and insightful study on how labour unions have failed Bangladesh’s garment workers, outlining a background that helps us understand how labour organising — and specifically garment labour organising — evolved over the years through a complex political and economic transformation of various local and global forces.

Trade unionising in Bangladesh has been historically connected with a series of anti-colonial and nationalist struggles — first, against the British colonialism that ended in 1947 and then against the rule of West Pakistan that ended with the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Most of the trade unions were organised by leftist and nationalist political parties who were involved in anti-colonial and nationalist struggles (Rahman and Langford 2012). These trade unions were very significant for political parties because of the unions’ capacity to mobilise a large number of workers on the streets.

After Pakistan became independent from the British colonial rule in 1947, the state’s hostile stance against the communist-leftist-progressive political block joined the Cold War trade union imperialism. During the Cold War, the US-based AFL-CIO appeared as a strategic tool to enforce the US government’s militant anti-communism. In 1955, the AFL merged with the CIO and aggressively started promoting ‘free trade unionism’ to dismantle the Soviet influence on global labour organising (McCallum 2013). Around the same time, Pakistan’s military dictatorship started suppressing the progressive-leftist-communist bloc. The communist party was banned in Pakistan in 1954, and trade union organising was banned in 1958. The series of banning forced leftist labour organisers to go underground. Against this backdrop, both the AFL-CIO and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions became strongly active in East Pakistan, and the East Pakistan Federation of Labour became affiliated with the ICFTU (Rahman and Langford 2012).


Post-independence AL government and its trial socialism

AFTER the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Awami League government nationalised 90 per cent of the country’s industries. Although the Awami League tried to introduce socialist economic policies and announced a relatively progressive labour policy, it soon got involved in authoritarian bureaucracy, corruption, and nepotism. The government collapsed all labour unions within one organisation, which significantly shrank the scope of independent labour organising (Rahman and Langford 2012).


General Zia’s pro-free market policies

THE Awami League government was overthrown in a military coup in 1975. Later, General Ziaur Rahman assumed state power and instituted martial law banning all trade unions. He lifted the ban in 1977 and initiated a registration mechanism that allowed only labour wings of political parties to register as labour unions. Some of the right-wing and pro-China leftist labour leaders expressed allegiance to General Zia. General Zia was an avid supporter of widespread privatisation prescribed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. His government sold most of the nationalised industries and opened the country’s border for foreign investments (Rahman and Langford 2012). The 1980s boom in the country’s garment industry is largely indebted to General Zia’s pro-free market stance, his implementation of structural adjustment policies, and his series of political and economic initiatives resulting in a shift from a ‘socialist’ to a capitalist path of development.


Ershad’s continuation of Zia’s neoliberal economic policies

AFTER the assassination of General Ziaur Rahman in 1981, General HM Ershad captured state power and ruled the country till 1990. General Ershad continued General Zia’s neoliberal strategy of mass-privatisation, sold state-owned firms to private bodies, and implemented structural adjustment policies (Rahman and Langford 2012). The country’s adoption of neoliberal political-economic forces was accompanied by the mid-1980s’ Multi-Fibre Arrangement, global recession, and transfer of manufacturing industries from South Korea and Taiwan to poorer countries. The larger political-economic transformations resulted in a dramatic rise of the readymade garment industry in Bangladesh (Siddiqi 2009, 160). During this time, progressive labour organisers attempted to initiate an anti-dictatorship movement against General Ershad. However, they were either convinced to join the government and collaborate or ruthlessly repressed by military forces. The Bangladesh Workers’ Party, a pro-China leftist political party, had the only labour union that was organising garment workers at that time. Nevertheless, the party was more interested in using workers for achieving political goals instead of fighting for their labour rights. As a result, garment workers’ organising never got priority in the mainstream labour organising agenda in the 1980s (Rahman and Langford 2012).


Post-Ershad AL and BNP rule

THE Ershad administration was overthrown by a powerful student movement in 1990. Since then, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have been ruling the country. Both political parties are different from their military predecessors regarding their allegiance to democratic values. Nevertheless, they continued the previous rulers’ support for the free market economy and neoliberal economic policies. Neither of them made any meaningful contribution towards strengthening the labour movement in the country. Each of the political parties has its labour wing that merely serves to secure voters for respective parties (Rahman and Langford 2012).


Left beyond AL-BNP sponsored labour organising model

ASIDE from the Awami League- and BNP-sponsored labour organising bodies, a limited number of leftist political organisations have been active in organising garment labour in Bangladeshi. Most of them reject funds from foreign donors or corporations and rely on donations from trusted personal donors, well-wishers, and allies (Rahman and Langford 2012). These organisations differ from each other regarding their adherence to Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyist, or other left political philosophies. Some of them do not have the necessary human resources to represent workers. The most prominent leftist political unions include the Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Trade Union Centre and the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum. Even though these organisations have a sufficient number of members, they had been denied registration as unions because of their critical stance against the government (Long 2015).

In recent years, left political unions have led several major garment workers’ protests in Bangladesh, for example, the 2006 mass uprising of garment workers and the 2014 Tuba Protest. In 2006, workers from 4,000 factories engaged in wildcat strikes, street demonstrations, and confrontation with armed law enforcement forces. Two left political unions, the Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Unity Forum and the Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Trade Unity Council, played a key role in mobilising workers and forcing the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association to accept the workers’ demands that included an increase in the minimum wage, maternity leave, and the right to unionise (Siddiqi 2017). In 2014, an alliance of eleven left-leaning organisations, including the Bangladesh Garment Workers Unity Forum, organised 1,600 workers of five garment factories owned by the Tuba group. The workers occupied a garment factory and participated in a hunger strike demanding three months of back wages and festival bonuses (Siddiqi 2015).


Labour NGOs: filing vacuum or transforming labour practices?

DESPITE some of the key worker mobilisations led by grass-roots left political organisations, there has been a critical absence of sustainable working-class movement prioritising workers’ concerns over political gains and of NGOs that have necessary ideological and experiential tools and resources to confront profit-driven corporations and push for workers’ rights in Bangladesh. Contemporary trends of NGOisation in Bangladesh significantly shape priorities and modes of operations of labour NGOs. Bangladeshi leftist feminist scholars criticise how NGOs foster neoliberal development, reproducing top-down imperialist dependencies with transnational NGOs, donors, and corporations (Karim 2004, 2008; Siddiqi 2006, Chowdhury 2011). As the political left in Bangladesh is very fragmented, its legitimacy in bringing meaningful social change has been questioned since the 1990s. NGOs, therefore, have filled the vacuum and appeared as forerunners of progressive social movements (Karim 2008).

One example of filling the vacuum in labour organising occurred when the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity (commonly known as the Solidarity Centre), an AFL-CIO project, started operating in Bangladesh in 1997. The AFL-CIO has been active in East Pakistan since 1960. It got a public face in East Pakistan with the establishment of the Asian American Free Labour Institute in 1967. The Solidarity Centre took over the AAFLI in 1997 (Rahman and Langford 2014).

The Solidarity Centre received extensive funding from the US government to promote ‘independent trade unions’ worldwide. The AFL-CIO has been widely criticised for practicing trade union imperialism. For example, Jack Scott describes how many US union leaders believed that US imperialist foreign policies would ensure progress and civilisation in backward communities. Kim Scipes, in his analysis of US trade union imperialism, argues that US imperialist projects can operate through labour NGOs, sidestepping relationships with the government. According to him, these NGOs exercise ‘political-economic-cultural’ control rather than forceful manipulation (Rahman and Langford 2014).

Therefore, it is essential to examine how US trade union imperialism was manifested in Bangladesh through the Solidarity Centre’s sponsorship of labour NGOs. The AFL-CIO, first as the Asian American Free Labour Institute and later as the Solidarity Centre, started their funded unions and an NGO instead of collaborating with already existing unions and federations in Bangladesh (Rahman and Langford 2014, 183). It established the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers’ Union, which became the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers’ Union Federation after its registration in 1997. Other NGOs and federations that the Solidarity Centre supported include the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation, the National Garment Workers’ Federation, and the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity. The Solidarity Centre maintained a distance from left-leaning unions in Bangladesh, which replicates the AFL-CIO’s historic Cold War anti-communist stance. It established a patron-client relationship with certain labour organisers by providing funds to pay for their paid positions, training, international travels, and food for members of their organisations. It discourages collective protest and instructs their allied labour federations and NGOs to follow bureaucratic and legalistic means of negotiation (Rahman and Langford 2014).

Colin Long uses the term ‘NGO unionism’ to indicate how overseas-funded NGO unions nurture links with transnational solidarity campaigns while ignoring material concerns on the ground in Bangladesh. Long notes operating as a labour NGO provides several incentives for these organisations. Bangladeshi garment workers are too poor to pay their union dues, making it challenging to run a workers’ contribution-based labour rights organisation. On the other hand, the labour NGO model guarantees a frequent flow of donor funds (Long 2015).

Another perk of subscribing to the labour NGO model is the support of powerful Northern labour rights allies who can protect the local labour organisers from the state’s repression and the government (Long 2015). For example, the Bangladesh government heavily targeted the BCWS and its allies in 2010. Aminul Islam, a trade unionist, affiliated with the BCWS and the BGWIF, was detained by the National Intelligence Service of Bangladesh and later found dead (Rahman and Langford 2014). Two other leaders of the same organisations, Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter, were arrested and imprisoned on ten criminal charges, including attempted murder, criminal intimidation, violence against civil servants, and mischief causing damage. The NGO Affairs Bureau also revoked the BCWS’s registration. The severe state suppression of labour organisers upset the BCWS’s Northern allies. The International Labour Rights Forum reached out to the US Trade Representative and threatened the Generalised System of Preference for Bangladesh. The AFL-CIO urged eleven international industrial associations, nine European ambassadors, and the then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton to put pressure on the Bangladesh government. Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter were eventually released, the criminal charges were dropped, and the BCWS was re-registered. Such intense international support is highly unlikely for unions and federations that are not affiliated with the Solidarity Centre and do not have transnational exposure (Rahman and Langford 2014). Moshrefa Mishu, for example, was arrested five times during the 2006 mass uprising of garment workers. She was arrested and injured by the police again during the 2014 Tuba protest. The news of her getting arrested and abused by the state force never made international headlines.

While Long recognises the necessity of using transnational collaboration to pressure local governments and factory owners, he expresses concern about how some of the Bangladeshi NGO unions prioritise appeasing the guilt of Northern consumers over bringing structural changes at the grassroots level. These organisations prefer distributing aids rather than organising workers to challenge exploitative workplace norms. They must operate conservatively as their prime support base exists outside the country. They cannot afford to be too radical to annoy the government (Long 2015).

Moreover, foreign-funded NGOs in Bangladesh had been regulated by the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Ordinance, 1978. The government repealed this ordinance on October 5, 2016, and passed a new law called the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Law 2016. The new law lists offences that can cause the cancellation or withholding of the registration of NGOs by the NGO Affairs Bureau. The offences include ‘anti-state activities, making malicious and derogatory statements against the constitution and constitutional bodies of Bangladesh, subversive activities, financing and sponsorship of terror and militancy, and trafficking of women and children’ (Global Legal Mirror 2016). Since the scope of the language of the new law is very broad and vague, registration as an NGO by default restricts an organisation from participating in civil disobedience or being fiercely critical of the state and the government.

While the critiques of labour NGOs are valid and timely, federations and NGOs also provide an alternative space for mobilising garment workers against the backdrop of restrictive labour laws and policies hindering freedom of organising (Saxena 2014). For example, Bangladesh’s labour law requires at least 30 per cent of the total factory workforce to sign up for union membership to get approval for registration. All union organisers must work at the factory. The list of union members is disclosed to the factory owner, which jeopardises workers’ job security in cases of labour disputes (Long 2015). Moreover, union organising is legally prohibited in factories that are located in export processing zones. In those cases where unionising is not a viable option, federations and NGOs play a significant role in creating formal and informal negotiation channels between workers, factory owners, and the government.

Since the foreign donation regulation law of Bangladesh requires an organisation to register as an NGO to receive foreign donations, many federations opened their labour NGOs to receive funding from their transnational allies. These federations and NGOs have revolving doors between them, enlisting workers seeking support from the NGOs as members of the federations and vice versa. Therefore, boundaries between federations and NGOs often get blurred because of various formal and informal connections and collaborations between different local and transnational actors and institutions.


Disjuncture between women’s movement and women workers’ movement

ALTHOUGH NGOs may offer creative spaces for resistance in an oppressive regime, NGO-driven social movements have not always been successful in addressing structural inequities and bringing sustainable transformation. Nazneen Shifa calls the NGO-led feminist movement ‘9 am–5 pm feminism’ and argues that NGOisation often reduces gender equality to some ‘tools and techniques,’ blurring ideological aspects and erasing the history and struggles of working-class women (Shifa 2013). Shifa’s argument echoed the frustration I heard during my ethnography of garment labour organising in Bangladesh. A number of grassroots labour organisers expressed that the mainstream women’s movement was heavily invested in ‘women’s issues,’ such as dowry or domestic violence or CEDAW ratification, and it did not pay adequate attention to women garment workers’ plea and organising needs.

How successfully did the women’s movement in Bangladesh address women workers’ rights and concerns? Why is it easier to talk about dowry or domestic violence in the family setting but not about the exploitation of women garment workers in the factory setting? There are several reasons. Powerful male elites have historically dominated the heavily politicised sphere of labour organising in the Indian subcontinent in the absence of an appropriate legal mechanism for ensuring social justice. They often used workers to serve their political agenda instead of fighting for labour rights (Rahman and Langford 2012). The urban elites also dominate the booming NGO sector in Bangladesh where they appear as saviours of the working-class poor. The NGOs working gender issues are not necessarily an exception. Chowdhury notes that secular modernist values strongly shape the class-based character of Bangladeshi women’s movement and feminist NGOs (Chowdhury 2011). The secular modernist stance of feminist NGOs has addressed gender and religious discrimination to a significant extent but often left neoliberal capitalist exploitation out of its purview. Issues concerning rural women’s education, labour force participation, access to microcredits, or child marriage top the priority list of many women’s rights-focused NGOs, but many of them would face a more challenging time addressing urban working-class women’s issues. An industrialised urban setting is often shaped by innovation, research, technology, and resources, most of which are controlled by either the government or mighty corporations who are difficult to challenge. Working with women garment workers is very different from working on issues such as child marriage and fighting against religious conservatives in rural settings where NGOs do not have to deal with powerful industrialists or government representatives with a vested interest in sustaining exploitative practices in the garment industry. If NGOs want to bring structural changes, they must confront industrialists, corporations, and the government. However, the role of NGOs in Bangladesh is often restricted to providing services and facilitating conversations, and they do not necessarily engage in confrontation with the state or corporations. Most of the NGOs are not activist organisations by nature. Some run projects on garment workers, provide various services, and directly collaborate with factory owners, but most of them do not actively participate in grassroots garment labour organising.

At the critical juncture of 50 years after the independence and amid a global pandemic, we should revisit the presumed inevitability of garment labour organising within the mainstream NGO model. We need to explore if there is a way to challenge the colonial mode of operation of labour NGOs that prioritise top-down donor-driven aid-dependent projects and appropriate local visions. Nevertheless, all labour NGOs are not monolithic, and these NGOs have a lot to learn from some of the smaller, left-leaning grassroots garment labour organising initiatives that have been doing a fantastic job of challenging the oppressive state and advocating for structural changes. How can labour NGOs collaborate more with grassroots political labour organising initiatives that prefer to operate outside the NGO-model and challenge the state and industrialists and corporations? Is there a way to channel resources to these grassroots organising initiatives that spend their energy on demanding transformative changes, such as securing a living wage and questioning cruel profit-maximising ventures of garment factory owners as well as transnational corporations instead of providing temporary, short-term services to garment workers? We need a lot of soul-searching in terms of where we are in garment labour organising and where we want to go from here before we tout the ‘success stories’ of the garment industry and the ‘empowerment’ of our women garment workers.


Nafisa Tanjeem is an assistant professor of gender, race and sexuality studies and global studies at Lesley University, United States.

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