Sharifunnessa has been working in the garment sector since 2002. She studied up to high school level. She came to Dhaka from Dinajpur in search of work to take care of her disabled husband and 3 children.
When she started work at her current factory, she saw that workers faced a multitude of problems, that include not getting their salary on time, not getting paid leave, maternity leave or benefits according to the law and unjust dismissals. At the time, the factory had around 500 workers. The workers in the factory were not organized and they didn’t have the courage to ask management for improvements to their working conditions.
Sharifun heard about an Awaj Foundation office near her factory where workers could get information about their rights and entitlements. One day, after work, she visited the Awaj office to find out more and became a member. She then shared her learnings with other workers and they also started coming to the Awaj office after work and on Fridays. At Awaj they learned about the Labour Law, their rights and unionization. After several months, they decided that they wanted to organize in their factory.
Awaj Foundation and its sister trade union, SGSF, gave the workers information on how to form a union, which forms to fill up and the type of documentation they need to submit. Sharifun took initiative to communicate with other workers, which was challenging because they couldn’t discuss these issues at work for fear of being fired. She often had to go to workers’ houses after work to collect their signatures for the union application.
After they submitted and got the union registration, Sharifun and her coworkers faced serious intimidation from management – 18 workers were fired immediately after the owners found out about the union. While Sharifun wasn’t fired right away, she faced severe psychological and sometimes physical intimidation at work. She wasn’t allowed to talk to other workers, was denied a raise she was due and her workload increased. She and the other labour leaders at the factory were threatened with lawsuits and she was eventually forced to resign.
When Sharfiun reached out to Awaj for help, they agreed to take action on her behalf. ED Nazma Akter and Operations Director Nayan held meetings with Solidarity Center and the factory management. They also collected the name of the brands that were producing in the factory and approached them. Facing pressure from these various sources, the factory owners relented and reinstated the fired workers, including Sharifun, and agreed to let the union operate. The workers were also paid their back dues.
When the workers were back at the factory the union held its first election and Sharifun was elected as the President of the Sommolito Sramik Union. 7 out of the 10 leaders of this union are women. The factory management also received training from Awaj and learned about the rights of workers and the responsibilities management has towards them. The management also met with the union representatives to get to know them.
Under the leadership of Sharifun, the union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that includes some ground-breaking measures. For example, annual wage increases of 8% (the legal requirement is 5%), festival leave of 22 days (the legal requirement is 11 days), increased food allowances for overtime work and a daycare center for children under six years of age, among others.
The level of job satisfaction at the factory has increased dramatically after the CBA was put in place and the relationship with management is cordial and productive. Business is also booming – after the union was established, production has increased and the factory has grown from 500 workers to 1,500.
A few years ago, I couldn’t even think of speaking in front of the factory managers, but now I speak with them regularly to solve issues raised by workers. Even the factory owner is in regular contact with me and treats me with a lot of respect. – Sharifunnesa, Union President
The confidence among workers has increased a lot since unionization. Workers are now much more aware of their legal rights related to issues such as maternity, overtime and paid leave and they know how to approach management to demand their rights. The behavior towards women workers by management and male coworkers has also improved and women workers are showing much greater interest in union activities.
Sharifun feels that by getting involved in organizing and union activities, her life has transformed. She is happy that she is able to make a positive difference in her factory and the lives of her coworkers.