Decent Work in Global Supply Chains

Women Workers' participation in Trade union


With a population of over 160 million, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. Still considered a “least developed country”, it has developed drastically within the last 20 years, but the majority of its population still lives in poverty: 76.5 percent live under the poverty line of US$ 2 per day. Its development is often linked to its booming export-oriented garment sector, which is second largest in the world after China. However this sector contributes just 12 percent to its gross domestic product (GDP). In fact, Bangladesh’s economy is heavily reliant on its informal economy, where up to 89 percent of its labour force is engaged, and which contributes around 30 percent of GDP.

According to the most recent data available, in 2013, 90.3 percent of working women were in the informal sector. They are concentrated in agriculture, manufacturing (mostly garments), and other services. The working situation for most informal women workers in Bangladesh is far from decent and dignified: the work is insecure and unstable, the incomes are low and irregular, long working hours, working conditions are unsafe and unhealthy, and there is a lack of access to information, markets, finance, training and technology etc.

Female participation in the labour force has increased three times faster than for their male counterparts from 2000 to 2013. Despite the rapid inclusion of women into the labour force, the majority of the women workers are not covered by the protections of labour law, and even the women who are covered, i.e. workers in the formal sector such as garment workers and public sector workers, suffer from atrocious working conditions and low wages. Laws, standards and protections are routinely ignored and enforcement is lax to non-existent.

Furthermore, the social division of gender and roles and responsibilities also define by society that affect the organizing of women workers. In RMG sectors, for example, the majority workforce have female and they play crucial role in organizing, however the leadership of the unions to which they belong is often dominated by men, who may not be willing to take women’s specific demands into consideration when bargaining on their behalf of women workers. So working women continue to be deprived of their basic rights due to the limited space available where they could exercise and demand their political and socio-economic rights.

As a labour rights activist, I found that women workers from both formal and informal sector they are not aware about their rights. So they always unrepresented and women’s participation in decision making processes also poor. Some good example also exits on women participation but though many barriers exist for women workers to participate as equals and make themselves heard.

A research work done on "Labour Rights and Decent Work Status of working women in Bangladesh" conducted by Labour at Informal Economy (LIE) and supported by Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC) an Hong-Kong based worker's rights organization. The research reveals that the overall trade union density in Bangladesh is 3 percent, and 22 percent among waged (formal) workers. A recent amendment of the Labour Law in 2013 made it easier for trade unions to be registered and there are now 7,289 enterprise level unions, and over 32 national union centres. Despite this progress, collective bargaining remains difficult and union repression and anti-union bias is widespread, especially in the garment sector. Unionization inside the public sector is more prevalent than in other sectors.

In a concluding remark currently active national trade union centres should incorporate different strategic approaches to organize women workers under the umbrella of unions. So that they can bargain for their rights and decent working conditions and they can focus women-specific issues such as ensuring maternity benefits, reproductive health etc.

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