Skip to main content

Bangladesh Unions Want Triple the Minimum Wage

Recent discussions in Dhaka question the progress, or lack of it, being made on labor training, occupational safety and health, freedom of association and minimum wages, according to sources close to Bangladesh’s garment sector, the world’s second-biggest apparel exporter behind China.

Unions linked to the apparel sector are among the most active in the South Asian nation, where, in total, more than 9,106 basic unions fall under 37 national union federations and some 191 union federations. The Department of Labour’s 2020 statistics show that only 5.2 percent of Bangladesh‘s approximately 4 million garments workers holds trade union membership, putting the collective bargaining coverage rate at about 1.5 percent.

The country registered about 300 trade unions per year between 2020-2022.

Although Bangladesh has seen “tremendous advancement” in acknowledging the critical role trade unions play in ensuring safety, there’s still “tremendous” work to be done, Tuomo Poutiainen, country director, International Labour Organisation (ILO), Bangladesh told Sourcing Journal.

“A lot of attitudes have changed, particularly in the garment industry, but we would like to see more of that. It’s not always well accepted by employers that workers should have a role to play in collective bargaining and dialogue and working conditions at factory level. The percentage of workers registered in trade unions is still very low. There is a lot of room for this to grow and for the unions to play a better and a more powerful role,” he said, pointing to the garment sector’s “massive transformation” since Rana Plaza.

Related Stories

“The investment in occupational safety and health, and industrial safety for workers have certainly seen real changes; the industry is much safer than it was 10 years ago, that is something we are very clearly able to say,” he added.

ILO has been working with Bangladesh organizations to advance training and worker safety.

The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), for instance, has been collaborating with ILO to find the way forward, answering worker rights organizations’ call to strengthen the department so it can better monitoring safety.

“The role of DIFE is extremely important,” Poutiainen said. “The capacity and ability of inspectors from DIFE to visit factories has grown significantly over the last 10 years—the number of inspectors has grown from some 60 in 2013 to more than five times that number today and the government budget has more than quadrupled in this time. At the same time the industry is growing fast in Bangladesh so it is a huge challenge to reach and maintain all of these and it is very important to continue to improve and augment and strengthen this.” 

However, getting DIFE in tip-top shape has been a challenge in recent years.

Speaking at a seminar organized by DIFE and ILO last month, Nasir Uddin Ahmed, DIFE inspector general, said the organization lacks the manpower to properly manage factory inspections. Asking its 313 inspectors to scrutinize more than 80,000 facilities is too daunting a task, he pointed out.

Others attending the seminar on “10 Years Achievement on Occupational Health and Safety in Bangladesh” had strong sentiments about trade unions.

“Even when we have representations in tripartite committees, our recommendations are often ignored,” said Kutub Uddin Ahmed, general secretary, IndustriAll Bangladesh Council.

“Eight out of world’s top 10 green and environment-friendly garment factories are in Bangladesh—there are more than 100 green factories in Bangladesh but the trade unions are almost absent from these,” he said. 

Kutub Uddin Ahmed, general secretary, IndustriAll Bangladesh Council

“Eight out of world’s top 10 green and environment-friendly garment factories are in Bangladesh—there are more than 100 green factories in Bangladesh but the trade unions are almost absent from these,” he said. 

It’s impossible to meet sustainable development goals without ensuring workers’ rights, Ahmed said.

“Owners are still against trade unions and they force workers not to join any union,” added Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.

The issues, however, are complex, according to one member of the Bangladesh Garment and Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). “Many of the unions have political affiliations, and these are not apparent to the outside world who stress unionization without understanding the issues within the country, and the specific areas. A lot of union leaders come with political agendas, and the situation cannot be judged from the outside without understanding the way things work in the country,” he said. 

Many union leaders believe that global brands and retailers can do much more on the labor front. While they have actively helped improve factory and worker safety over the last decade, they could help ensure worker participation and the freedom of association as well.

“One way the trade unions could step up was if buyers held the factories accountable for violation of labor rights,” said Nazma Akhter, executive director, Awaj Foundation.

Buyers should also ensure that unions are actively supporting members.

“Although the number of registered unions has increased many of these new unions are not active in practice,” she said.  

Worker rights continue to be an area of concern as Bangladesh apparel exports cross the $38 billion mark for the nine-month period since July 2022. 

The delegation of the European Parliamentary Committee on International Trade which visited Dhaka last year urged Bangladesh to improve human rights and amend labor laws in line with international standards, and voiced concerns over the nation’s extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Clean Clothes Campaign was among the many organizations to address the need to support worker rights at the 10th anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza disaster last month. 

“While many factories are now safer, progress is lacking on most other issues. Our collective pressure continues to be needed to push for workers’ rights,” it said in a statement. “Together, we need to push brands to assure their suppliers and the newly-convened Bangladeshi wage board that they will support a tripling of the minimum wage by increasing the prices they pay per product. We need to stand in solidarity with Bangladeshi workers and fight alongside them against the ongoing repression of freedom of association,” the organization noted. 

Bigger unions are pushing to raise wages from the current minimum of 8,000 taka or approximately $75 a month.

Bangladesh’s labor law requires industries to set minimum wages every five years. Trade unions have recently asked for an increase to 25,000 taka ($233.42) as the new minimum wage to meet rising inflation and living expenses. 

Trade unions in Bangladesh also want 10 percent annual salary increases, which is double the current 5 percent, and new wage structure for workers.