Pioneering workplace social dialogue in Bangladesh
Successive waves of mass industrial action in the Bangladesh ready-made garment (RMG) industry over poverty wage levels and poor treatment of workers, caused disquiet among many global brands who had been steadily growing their sourcing activities there. Could they rely upon this strife-riven country as a medium-long term supply base? Or would strikes, workplace violence and machine-breaking wreck the industry before it had really started?
As the largest buyer from the Bangladesh RMG sector, H&M publicly pledged to help create long-term sustainable growth in the country by placing fair pay and fair treatment at the heart of its forward sourcing strategy. Aware that stable growth is built upon stable social relations in production, the Swedish-originating brand sought a means of encouraging its suppliers to embrace a dialogue-based approach to industrial relations.
The company turned to Just Solutions Network (JSN), with whom it had worked successfully in the past, to develop a strategic plan that could help stabilise industrial relations within the H&M Bangladesh supply chain (and potentially in other sourcing countries too). Unfortunately, Bangladesh has lacked the most important component for dialogue – partners who are representative, willing and professionally capable to sit down together to negotiate for the long-term health of the industry and its workers. Despite years of struggle, trade unions are weak and mostly non-existent in the factories. Less than five per cent of RMG sector workers are organised into any kind of trade union, while not all trade unions are independent of employers. Despite brand oversight, most local employers are strongly opposed to unions and surreptitiously exert maximum pressure to prevent their formation. As there is no legitimate vehicle through which workers can express their voice, inevitable tensions arise that sporadically turn to anger and violence. The often-expressed goal of creating “a mature industrial relations system” requires a mature set of institutions – and Bangladesh does not have them.
What we did
An initial feasibility study was undertaken and a strategy advanced to help raise the consciousness of both employers and workers to the need for constructive engagement over the industry’s future and that of its workers. The strategy utilized a largely ignored (at that time) aspect of the Bangladesh labour law that requires the independent election of a number of worker representatives from the shopfloor who would take part in a joint ‘participation committee’ with management at the company level. As it was the law, suppliers could be required to ensure that these structures were properly established and elections were freely held under supervision if necessary. It is a frequent problem that workers chosen to act as company-level representatives have no way of staying in touch with the workers whom they are supposed to represent. Just Solutions therefore developed a strategy whereby worker reps would be elected from defined ‘constituencies’ within the factories and would be responsible not only for voicing issues upward but also would be accountable to those who had elected them. With the effective operation of these structures, workers would gradually begin to learn the power of collective representation. As both workers and managers become more comfortable with the concept of collective discussion leading to positive outcomes, it could be a shorter step towards systematic and mature collective bargaining between genuine trade unions and employers.
After a successful 18-month pilot in five sample factories showed a positive score on the chosen KPIs and received a favourable external assessment, the program was rolled out across the whole H&M supply chain in Bangladesh. This three-year process required a dedicated team of trainers, whom JSN recruited, trained and developed to deliver the whole program of trainings. The team was housed in a new training centre in Dhaka that will continue as a training hub going forward.
Managers were first to be trained in a bid to help change factory culture from the top. Supervisors also needed to be trained to understand the purpose of the changes and to be able to deal appropriately with issues that would now begin to surface through the new structures.
In order to reach the over 400,000 workers who were involved in the program, JSN had prepared a special training feature movie, ‘Let’s Talk’, for showing to workers in the factories during working time sessions. Presented as a regular ‘slice of life’ film, this gave orientation on the purpose and usefulness of electing worker reps as a means of resolving tough issues encountered in the factory. It preceded monitored free elections for worker representatives from each factory section.
The newly elected reps underwent extensive training in their new role – how to research issues, how to present them and how to remain accountable to their constituents. ‘Improvement circles’ were initiated in many factories as a regular feature where worker reps could lead their constituents in discussion of current issues of concern during working time. KPIs included the number of issues that were escalated for discussion and the speed of settlement and feedback.
An independent review of the completed project showed that 82 per cent of workers felt confident to raise issues with their worker rep because the company was more responsive through the worker rep system.
Despite initial, often strong, resistance, managers who had experienced the system in practice felt that the worker reps were performing a useful and responsible job.
All factories felt that the changes had made a positive impact on industrial relations.
Absenteeism and worker migration (worker turnover) were reduced and the general climate of stability and cooperation in the factory were felt to be much improved.
This was the first project of its kind in Bangladesh and has since been used by H&M (and others) as a model for ‘social dialogue’ programs in other sourcing countries.