We are always afraid that trade unions mean road blockade, vandalism and so on, but if the workers are duly paid and their rights are preserved there would be no demonstrations. The question is - how this could be ensured.
Let us have a look at the condition of the female readymade garment (RMG) workers. How are they doing? They are not doing good. There is not only deprivation of wage and remuneration, threats of entrenchment, but there is also another threat surpassing all -- the threat of physical abuse.
Another problem is not receiving sexual and reproductive health treatment. There is law and sterner rules. The problems should have been solved if those were followed. The situation is better at some factories that are compliant and abide by the rules, but the small ones do not follow these. The existing labour law, though, includes many privileges for the women workers.
Issues like this were discussed at a roundtable meeting organised by Prothom Alo and Netherlands-based development organisation NSV on 7 March, on the eve the international women's day.
The agenda stressed several health issues. For example, a woman cannot work for 3-4 days every month due to menstruation. She needs safe sanitary napkin and in some cases, may need to consult physicians, too. However, she very often fails to do so for the factory’s stricter rules.
The factories are supposed to have physicians for the workers and especially, for the female ones, but how many of them follow this rule? If no physician is there a woman requires taking a few hours' leave and see one outside. As she is forced to see the doctor after her duty is over, hospitals are closed by this time and she has to go to the costly private clinics. NSV is working on to solve such problems and to implement the labour law and regulations. It is not possible for the government to do it on its own.
It requires cooperation of non-government organisations and institutions. The factory owners' role is crucial here and this role is being carried out by the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association). The rest is required from the workers. Most of the problems could be solved if this four counterparts work together.
Lack of awareness is a big problem, too. A permanent platform for exchange of views is also needed.
NSV has taken an enterprise to set up a model that includes health insurance for the workers. It has already signed up with two insurance companies. The worker as well as the factory owners will pay for the installments. If a worker falls sick, s/he will receive money.
After the report on the roundtable was published, the head of the human resource management at Picard Bangladesh, Rasheda Khanam, called me and said they, on behalf of the owners' association, had taken special steps to ensure privileges for the workers. I along with her joined in movements over workers' right in our student life. I call her 'Rina Apa'. She is using even the minimal scope for women workers at this final phase of career. She has always been such aware on preserving the rights of the workers, especially that of the women.
Rina Apa's organisation deals in leather goods and shoes. The factory owners' association has fixed some regulations for their members other than the existing compliance conditions. One among these is diagnosis of workers' tuberculosis and providing treatment if required.
Providing sanitary napkins, ophthalmological tests and medication and insurance are among this.
Such measures were taken in many of the RMG factories, too. Special treatment for female workers, day care centres and breastfeeding arrangements while on duty are among these. We can campaign throughout the country about such models. A worker's skills are developed through such privileges. Devotion to work increases production and the owners are benefitted as well. We could not establish this at every factory and this is the major challenge now.
Mujibul Haque, the president of the parliamentary standing committee on labour and employment ministry, was the chief guest at the roundtable. He said there should be trade unions for women and this would raise awareness, too.
A healthy trade union can change the state of female workers. A huge number of women work in the RMG sector. They have proven they can perform equally to their male counterparts and in cases, even better.
If we can export $50 billion in apparel sector by 2021, on the 50th year of our independence, a socio-economic revolution would take place.
This requires preservation of female reproductive health and ensuring their justified wage and remuneration along with other previliges.
*Abdul Quayum is an associate editor of Prothom Alo and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org