Crisis support for Bangladeshi garment workers’ union

With UnionAID’s support, the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) of Bangladesh had been increasing union membership and strengthening collective bargaining when the pandemic hit.  Nearly 5,000 new members were recruited in 2019. Now the union needs help to sustain its organsation and defend garment workers’ rights as membership drops and workers face long-term hardship.

NGWF was established in 1984. It is an independent trade union federation with 75 registered factory level unions and 85,000 garment worker members. COVID-19 has devastated the garment manufacturing industry in Bangladesh.  Reduced consumer demand, quarantine restrictions in Bangladesh and supply chain disruption has seen one million garment workers laid off.  

With no universal social security and few savings the workers and their families are facing long-term hardship. Fashion brands have cancelled contracts mid-production and defaulted on payments for garments already produced.  Some garment factories have refused to pay employees for hours already worked. Public appeals led some fashion brands to agree to pay, but some 200,000 workers have still not been compensated.  Some 30,000 workers have had their employment terminated illegally.   

Factories are now allowed to re-open with social distancing and hygiene provisions in place, inviting community virus transmission. Testing is limited.  Workers desperate to return to work are tolerating significant health and safety risks. 

With a return to pre-pandemic employment levels expected to take months or years, the sustainability of the NGWF is at risk.  Its membership revenue dropped to zero in May as members faced serious hardship. Yet NGWF’s 11 full-time staff are working harder than ever to follow up grievances and campaign for justice.   

UnionAID will be supporting the union to retain its organisers so they can respond to the needs of garment workers, research and address labour rights violations, and run small local pressure campaigns to push garment factories and the government to better support the workers.   

All these action methods are critical to defending and enforcing labour rights. All of them will strengthen the ability to achieve a fairer response and recovery to the pandemic. Sustaining the viability of UnionAID’s partner union, NGWF, is vital to improving labour rights in the notoriously exploitative fast fashion industry in Bangladesh. By supporting UnionAID you can support NGWF and some of the world’s most vulnerable workers. 

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