With union membership rising, Bangladeshi factory workers take part in May Day protests over their own cost of living crisis: slum housing, malnutrition and unaffordable healthcare.
On the second floor of a bulky, grey tower block in central Dhaka, lies a tiny office where a group of Bangladeshi women is leading a revolution. A workers’ revolution, writes Daisy Ayliffe.
This is the headquarters of the AWAJ Foundation, the charity arm of a union that represents tens of thousands of women working in Bangladeshi clothing factories.
Today, their sewing machine stitches triangular red flags, and their gas stoves heat the glue needed for May Day placards to be marched into action during workers’ rallies later this week.
By evening, the office has transformed into a café where women come to drink tea, play games and learn about their rights in the factories where they work.
The charity is run by Nazma Akter, the powerful SGSF union leader who has risen to prominence through her defence of this country’s female workforce.
Akter’s struggle was thrown into sharp focus when disaster struck Dhaka one year ago. Over 1,100 people died following the Rana Plaza factory building collapse on 24 April 2013.
Most victims were women, and mainly young, impoverished women at that.
“I began working in a clothing factory myself at the age of 11,” Akter says. “I started work with my mother and for seven years I worked 10, 12 or 14 hour days, seven days a week. On the factory floor, women were subjected to verbal and physical abuse. So I tried to join a union to fight those problems.
Life is getting better now. The union allows women to raise their voice.
“And life is getting better now,” she believes. “The union allows women to raise their voice.”
Through her union, Akter runs 12 workers’ cafes around Bangladesh. They provide training to more than 60,000 women – on everything from the minimum wage to maternity rights and fire safety.
In the year since Rana Plaza, Akter believes Bangladeshi women have become more confidently unionised. “20,000 more women have joined this union since last April,” she says.
Over the last year, the union has also successfully fought for an increase in the minimum wage for textile workers (from £13.20 to £24.75 per month.)
But Akter says “the cost of living crisis” is still a big problem in Bangladesh. A problem that sounds familiar to British audiences, but in Bangladesh, a cost of living crisis means malnutrition, slum housing and unaffordable healthcare.
The clothing industry has no doubt helped make Bangladeshi people grow richer, but since Rana Plaza, the “made in Bangladesh” label has also become largely synonymous with perilous working conditions and invisible workers’ rights.
When they take to the streets with their red flags and placards this May Day, the women of Dhaka’s AWAJ Foundation will be hoping to change that.