Raising awareness among workers about their rights, increasing their capacity for negotiation and collective bargaining and creating harmonious industrial relations are three key areas of work for Awaj Foundation. In 2017, with the support of Awaj, collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) were negotiated and signed by women union leaders in six factories, covering over 16,000 workers. This is a remarkable achievement as only ten CBAs were signed in the entire RMG sector in Bangladesh during that time period.
The CBAs negotiated with Awaj support are exemplary because workers were able to negotiate for terms that go far beyond the minimum legal requirement. For example, while the labour law mandates a wage increase of five percent per year, workers were able to negotiate increases of eight percent or more; by law, workers are entitled to 11 days of festival leave every year, but these agreements included leave of 14 to 22 days; workers were also able to give input into developing menus for day-care centers in factories to ensure that their children are given nutritious food. In one large factory with over 7,000 workers, they were able to negotiate that the employer would pay for the ultrasound check-ups of pregnant workers. This is quite an achievement considering that termination for becoming pregnant is still a widespread practice in the industry.
Workers were also able to argue for provisions that would help create a better environment for them to organize and exercise their rights at the factories. They gained concessions on paid days off to attend union meetings and trainings, space allocation for a union office and better grievance handling mechanisms for workplace disputes and sexual harassment. The collective bargaining agreements also stipulate that monthly union dues will be collected directly by payroll and deposited into the union bank account. This process, while common for unions in developed countries, had never been implemented in Bangladesh, until now.
In most cases, employers were not keen to do more than what is legally required of them. However, workers, with the support of Awaj Foundation, were able to convince factory owners and management that an adequate salary and facilities that allow workers to better take care of their health and their families are good for productivity. Good morale at work and a cordial relationship between workers and management helps reduce unrest and absenteeism. It also attracts and helps retain skilled workers. What is good for workers is ultimately also good for business.
The examples set by these agreements concretely demonstrate that empowering workers with good negotiating skills and an environment that allows for collective bargaining can bring about enormous positive changes to working and living conditions of workers.