Bilkis Begum is a 30-year-old mother of one. She came to Dhaka to work in the RMG sector 9 years ago. She currently holds the position of machine operator at her factory.
Bilkis noticed that at her factory workers were facing problems such as not getting leave they were due, very little festival bonus and not getting annual wage increases according to the law. But she didn’t know how to approach management to solve these problems. Around 3 years ago, she came to know about Awaj Foundation and she got in touch with them to learn about the Labour Law, negotiation with management and how to form a union.
At Awaj, Bilkis was not only trained on her rights, but through our sister union federation SGSF, she also received hands-on mentoring on the unionization process, how to prepare a union application and how to submit. In order to get her coworkers on board, Bilkis spoke to them during lunch hours, after work and at community gatherings. She shared her learnings about the benefits of unionization with other workers. Although it was time consuming and hard work, she managed to collect enough signatures to submit a union application and received the registration.
In the beginning, the factory owner and management were not supportive of the union. However, after a while they realized that the union didn’t present any unfair demands from the workers. When there was unrest in other factories in the area, the union helped mediate conflict between workers and the management. They raised the workers’ demands with management and solved it through dialogue. The owners were grateful because their factory kept working and they were able to ship products on time.
After developing a cordial relationship with management, Bilkis negotiated a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the workers and management. This CBA contains provisions that are particularly targeted towards women workers, such as the employer paying for the ultrasound checkup of pregnant workers and relief from physically taxing work after the 6th month of pregnancy. In an industry where women are still routinely dismissed when they become pregnant, this an extraordinary achievement. The CBA has also increased annual wage increments, festival holidays and paid leave beyond what the employer is obligated to provide by law.
The performance of this union and their groundbreaking CBA is now an inspiration to others and workers from neighbouring factories now regularly come to Bilkis for advice. She even presented this success story of productive cooperation between workers and management at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva in November, 2017.
Bilkis firmly believes that workers can achieve a lot through grassroots organizing and direct negotiation with employers. Women leaders, in particular, can advocate for changes that are often left out of high-level policy discussions and the legal framework.
Unions are capable of negotiating changes and improvements that are beyond the legal minimum. This is what we should strive for. – Bilkis, union president
Bilkis is continuing her trainings on labour rights and negotiation with Awaj Foundation. She hopes one day to be a national-level leader like Awaj ED Nazma Akter. Bilkis loves her work as a union leader because workers come to her with their problems and she can help them find solutions. Although she is still young, she is respected by her coworkers. The leadership qualities she has developed are also useful in her personal life and her family and her relatives often come to her for advice.