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Collective Bargaining Agreements in the time of Covid

Hop Lun Apparels Ltd. Sommilito Sramik Union (HLALSSU) signed a groundbreaking 24-point Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the management of Hop Lun Apparels Ltd on 6 June 2020, under the leadership of Union leader Aklima Akter. While the rest of the country’s workforce struggled with the impacts of COVID-19 and a lockdown–RMG workers in particular facing challenges ranging from lost wages through to cancelled orders and forced redundancies–Hop Lun’s 2,000-strong labour force was protected by this CBA. 

The CBA was facilitated by Awaj Foundation’s sister labour union, Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF). Awaj Foundation’s Executive Director and SGSF President Ms Nazma Akter, and SGSF’s General Secretary Nahidul Hasan Nayan  oversaw the negotiations spread out across 6 months, and the eventual signing of the agreement. 

 

A CBA is a powerful tool. It helped us in Hop Lun Apparels Ltd. (Unit-2) to bring our teams together, discuss the details and agree. It kept us connected and to work toward survival during the pandemic time. It’s the whole process which needs to be looked at, not the mere outcome of the CBA” –
Amilthan Suntharalingam, Expert, Hop Lun Apparels Ltd, Unit 2

 

Background of the CBA

Collective bargaining allows organised labour unions to negotiate with representatives and management of garment factories, ideally for the benefit of both parties. This agreement is facilitated by agents from both sides. For HLALSSU’s CBA, the Executive Director of Awaj Foundation and President of SGSF, Nazma Akter negotiated on behalf of the union.

Both HLALSSU and SGSF worked with Hop Lun workers from December 2019 to note down all demands of workers, and their complaints. This was then converted into a 24-point Charter of Demands, 18 of which was accepted by factory management. The Union submitted this Charter in February 2020, with the understanding that the agreement would commence retroactively from January 2020. 

 

Details of the agreement

Hop Lun Apparels Ltd factory management eventually signed the agreement on 6 June 2020. The agreement was groundbreaking in allowing for double the amount of pay increase, at a time where orders were uncertain and RMG workers were being laid off around the country. Not only did all workers retain their jobs, but the management ensured their safety throughout the pandemic, and ensured the wellbeing of workers and their families.

The CBA also launched Hop Lun Apparel Ltd’s anti harassment and prevention of violence measures, and daycare facilities for workers’ children. This allows women workers to work without worrying about the safety of their children. Women are also now eligible for more promotions and leadership. The daycare will host workers’ children under 6 years of age, and provide them with quality care and education. 

 

“The guarantee of promotions for women to higher positions, and the establishment of the sexual harassment committee will empower women and provide safeguards against sexual abuse and harassment in our factory.” – Aklima Akter, HLALSSU president.

 

The most remarkable achievement, however, was the 10% annual salary increment, where the government mandated salary increment is 5%. Hop Lun management also agreed to the establishment of a provident fund, against which workers would be able to take loans. 

HLALSSU also reached an agreement to have an office for the union within the factory itself, and union members could work on issues pertaining to the union during work hours, without being penalised.

Importance of CBAs for workers 

While Collective Bargaining is ratified by Bangladeshi labour laws, the process itself has been historically very weak. A lack of unionisation, not having the right to unionise itself, agents who did not have the best interests of workers at mind, and unions who were motivated by self-promotion often prevented these agreements from forming.

Hop Lun’s CBA is an acknowledgement, both from the union and factory management, that working together is mandatory for the social protection of workers, and for smooth operations within the factory itself. It sets a standard for a changing narrative for the RMG sector in Bangladesh, where factory management works with their workers, and not against them. 

This CBA will protect Hop Lun workers and management till June 2022. HLALSSU can amend the terms of the CBA, or enter into an entirely new CBA then, if the workers wish to enter into one.