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Executive Director's Message

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NUK has mostly focusing on it's restructuring and transition from its more donors dependency to self-sufficiency and sustainability reflecting on the organization’s bright future as a pathfinder in the field of its women’s empowerment agenda. NUK has working to seek out new opportunities and modify approaches built on NUK’s comparative advantages for the future.

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We believe that listening to the unheard voices of the women and adolescent girls of our country can provide us with a different, valuable perspective on the economic hidden power of women whose hand can also share a burden for living and help live life better than ever. This is why we help to provide opportunities for them to communicate their views in their own way.

Working together, we can contribute to building better lives for the most deserving and can look ahead to a better future for them.

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Garment Factory & Workers Support Program

Introduction | Current Situation | Current Challenges | NUK’s Response | NUK’s Achievements | Financing


NUK's Garment Factories Support Programme works with both management and workers to improve working conditions and protect workers' rights to secure continued competitiveness and sustainability of the Bangladesh Garments export industry in a global market increasingly requiring adherence to international labour and ethical business standards.

NUK undertakes independent social compliance audits, supports factory management to adopt remediation measures, provides training and services to workers and monitors employment and working conditions in the industry. Through building alliances with Government Departments, national Trade Associations, Trade Unions, International and national NGOs and Foundations, Research Institutes and the media, it aims to ensure that working conditions meet or exceed international labour standards and ethical sourcing requirements.

Current Situation:

The garments sector (garments and knitwear) is the largest and fastest growing manufacturing industry n Bangladesh and accounts for 76% of export earnings (US $6.5 billion in 2004-5). As of 200 7 it comprises around 5000 factories employing 2.5 million workers of whom 75 % are young women (more than 60% under 24 years of whom nearly half are unmarried). Most of the factories are located in Dhaka , Chittagong , Narayanganj, Savar Tongi,and Gazipur with an increasing presence in the Export Promotion Zone. Currently there are eight EPZ exists in different part of the country. This urban concentration means that most workers are internal migrants from the rural areas. It is no exaggeration to claim that the garments industry has created a revolution over the last 20 years in terms of women's empowerment; young women have gained status as they have been able to contribute financially to their families, started savings, gained some degree of freedom and participation in household decision making, have delayed marriage and pregnancy and have had access to training and awareness raising. These gains need to be protected and improved upon.

Whilst Bangladesh is enjoying growth in the industry despite the removal of the quota system under the Multi- Fibre Agreement (MFA) in 2005, the sustainability of the industry is nevertheless at risk from competition, particularly from India and China . Despite tariff free access to the European market, Bangladesh is at a disadvantage as its backward linkages are relatively weak forcing it to rely on its competitors for raw materials. Bangladesh thus needs to make huge efforts to ensure its market and one way is to appeal to ethical sourcing. As the MFA Forum in May 2006 in Dhaka , Bangladesh concluded: " There is now acknowledgement that compliance with national law and international labour standards is a vital component of international competitiveness and the sustainability of the industry".

Although conditions in garments factories have improved since the 80s and are comparatively better than some other sectors, there is still pervasive violation of labour laws and poor working and living conditions for workers. Whilst this can be somewhat attributed to poor regulation, poor management culture and competence as well as owner's profiteering, this situation is exacerbated by the demands placed on factory management by some foreign discount clothing retailers which form the bulk of Bangladesh's customers. They force down prices, play factories off against each other, require short production times, flexibility and seasonal responsiveness. These pressures inevitably lead to low wages, non-compensated overtime, excessive working hours, insecurity of employment, cutting corners in health and safety and worker abuse. NUK's research has found that women garment workers themselves identify irregular payment, unsafe and unhygienic working conditions, opposition to trade unionisation and absence of job security, as their most pressing problems.

Several international organisations have developed codes of practice or social auditing standards based on interpretation of the ILO Conventions. These largely cover the same areas and are listed in the following table together with a brief description of the current situation in Bangladesh garment industry.
Current Challenges:


Current challenge

Employment is freely chosen:

ILO Conventions 29 and 105; no bonded or forced labour and workers free to leave employment after reasonable notice

There is no bonded labour in the garments industry but delayed salary and overtime payments (often months) make it very difficult for a worker to leave without incurring financial loss.

Workers may be locked inside the factory during working hours.

Freedom of Association and right to collective bargaining;

ILO Conventions 87,98, 135: workers can freely join TUs, TU representatives are not discriminated against

Although this right is also enshrined in the Bangladesh Constitution, the formation of a TU requires the consent of owners, which is rarely given. TUs in Bangladesh are generally politicised and corrupt. Further, TU representatives are harassed by management and often fired from their jobs. Overall, attempts to unionise are usually responded to with hostility and repression. Only 5% of garment workers are unionised (only 3% among women workers). Only since the beginning of 2007, has the EPZ accepted TUs. Workers raise concerns with management through supervisors. The absence of a professional TU movement with authority and adequate data and analysis, means that workers resort to ad hoc and disruptive strikes and protests rather than reasoned negotiation.

Safe and hygienic working conditions:

ILO Convention 155; adequate provision to prevent injury, regular health and safety training, access to clean toilets and safe drinking water

Many of the garment factories were not purpose built and lack basic health and safety provisions. Many newer factories suffer from poor construction and inattention to health and safety features. More than 300 garments workers have died in factory accidents in recent years. Occupational ill-health (particularly exhaustion, poor eyesight, gastric and urinary tract infections) prevails.

Child Labour shall not be used

LIO Convention 138 and 182: no employment of children under 15, no night employment of young persons under 18

Much was done in the 90s to reduce child labour in the garment industry. However, Bangladesh has not ratified Convention 138, which dictates a minimum age of 15. Underage employment does still exist and records are falsified or underage employees hidden during audits. Pressure to meet order deadlines mean that under 18's regularly work at night.

Living wages are paid

ILO Convention 26, 131; wages are enough to meet basic needs, workers informed of wage rates and payment periods, no unilateral deductions from wages for disciplinary reasons

A new minimum wage was announced in October, 2006 but debates still ensue as to whether this is a ‘liveable wage' particularly in light of the MDG target of raising people out of extreme poverty (US$1per day). Bangladesh garment workers are among the lowest paid, particularly compared to the main exporters. Wages are kept low by extending ‘probation' or ‘trainee periods' beyond 6 months and misclassification of workers. Overtime is usually mandatory and not paid at premium rates. Unilateral deductions are made for lateness and other misdemeanours. Paid leave is rare. Benefits programmes are exceptional. Wages are often linked to daily targets, which if not met result in deductions.

Working hours are not excessive;

ILO 1; a working week is 48 hours over 6 days with voluntary overtime not exceeding 12 hours per week. Overtime should not be regular and should be fully compensated

This is probably the most critical issue for workers in the garment industry and the most often cited reason for leaving. As mentioned above, overtime is mandatory and not compensated at premium rates. Many garment workers regularly work 14-16 hour days, have no weekly holiday and often work through the night. With long travel times garment workers report getting only 5-6 hours sleep per night.

No discrimination is practiced:

ILO Convention 100,111; no discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, gender, union membership, marital status

Women garment workers often do not get equal pay and job opportunities. There is generally no maternity leave benefit and rarely provision of childcare facilities. Persons over 35 and disabled are rarely employed. Workers may be harassed or fired for union membership.

Legally binding regular employment relationship;

Contracts or other recognised form of employment relationship, labour-only contracts unacceptable

New labour code requiring provision of written contracts has yet to be approved. Most workers do not have any written contract and may only have an ID or attendance card. There is widespread flouting of obligations to provide training and social benefits.

No harsh or inhumane treatment;

No physical abuse, sexual harassment or other forms of intimidation

Women garment workers often suffer harassment at the workplace and travelling to and from work. Reports indicate that workplace abuse is declining but it still exists and is probably under-reported, as workers fear that raising concerns particularly where management is perpetrating the abuse will lead to dismissal.

NUK’s Response:

Founded in 1991 to promote gender equality, human rights and to foster personal empowerment of women and girls in Bangladesh , NUK has been working with garment factories since then. It is an independent non-profit organization uniquely positioned to meet the growing worker, consumer and industry concerns about working conditions and human rights in the workplace

It adopts a constructive and non-confrontational approach working towards win:win solutions for both workers and management. It works on the premise that improvements in working and employment conditions will lead to enhanced wellbeing, security and loyalty among the workforce which in turn will improve productivity and brand reputation. In a hostile environment of mutual suspicion between factory owners and Trade Unions and anti-NGO sentiments, NUK has worked hard over more than fifteen years to build the trust and respect of workers and management alike.

It achieves its aim through

Independent social compliance auditing .

NUK is affiliated with Fair Wear Foundation and undertakes audits under their supervision. By 2006, NUK had conducted more than 55 Social compliance audits using a blend of international codes including SA8000. Few have yet to reach category ‘A' compliance and NUK continues to work with these factories to raise their standards. Factories continue to fall short in terms of workplace safety, improper built environment, weak documentation, inattention to workers rights and irregular payments and excessive overtime.

NUK's auditors are mostly from the private sector and can thus relate to the exigencies of the sector and earn the respect of management. NUK is well placed to conduct audits since it has no vested interests (business or political), possesses extensive experience in communicating well with factory workers both on site and off site, has over 15 years experience of working to raise awareness of workers rights, health and safety and understands the culture. NUK views its independence very seriously and feels that not-for-profit organisations can fulfil the auditing role best.

Remediation, Referral and Training

NUK works with both workers and management to draw up corrective action plans. In addition to installation of facilities to meet compliance demands (such as toilets, improved access, fire safety equipment etc,) the plan usually involves the need for education and training for both the workers and management on rights, health and safety, grievance procedures and record keeping. NUK also provides intensive training for in-house compliance officers employed by factories.

NUK is active in sharing the best practices adopted by some Bangladeshi factories including the provision of target and attendance bonuses, subsidized medical assistance, transport facilities, free lunches, worker insurance and provision of work clothes.

Provision of services for workers

In addition to provision of compliance-related training, NUK also provides other training and services to women workers to enhance their economic position and job security (including pre-employment orientation, skills enhancement of employed workers and job-seeking skills for those who drop out from garment factory employment). In particular, it provides training on Worker's rights, duties and responsibilities during the course of conducting Social Compliance Audits. NUK advises workers to elect Workers Welfare Committees within their factories. NUK encourages these Committees to liaise between management and the workers in a spirit of mutual cooperation. NUK also provides training to Trade Union leaders and members on labour rights, international trade issues and gender concerns. Starting in 1991, NUK was a pioneer in providing worker hostels which are widely recognised as models for clean, safe, secure and low cost dormitory accommodation. Originally these hostels also enabled NUK to forge good relations with the young workers and provided a venue for training on gender, worker rights, health and hygiene and nutrition when factory owners were still hostile to the idea of outsiders working with their employees. Now, NUK can run training programmes inside the factories with the support of management.

Research and advocacy:

NUK continually monitors the state of the garment industry from the perspective of women's employment and employment conditions and publishes these findings on a regular basis. It is active in monitoring the implementation of the minimum wage and Labour Code legislation enacted from October 2006.

NUK actively lobbies for

•  Quality Standards which exceed the requirements of the basic social compliance audit

•  acceptance among garment factory owners of the advantages of being compliant . Factories providing safe and secure environments, which engender loyal and contented workers and relieve the anxiety of families left behind in rural villages as well as increased and more reliable export market.

•  Provision of transport for women garment workers, particularly at night

Provision of worker accommodation With over 15 years experience of providing accommodation for young women migrant workers in Dhaka, NUK will continue to lobby for provision of migrant workers' accommodation with the Ministry of Housing and is currently providing advice on design and management

Alliance building and outreach:

i. Bangladesh Garment Workers Protection Alliance (BGWPA )

NUK spearheaded the formation of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Protection Alliance in 2001 recognising the need for coordinated action to protect the rights of garment workers particularly with the then perceived threat of the MFA phase out. The Alliance comprises 24 organisations including NGOs, Trade Unions, garment workers associations and activists. The Alliance is strictly non-partisan and aims to mobilise government, businesses, trade unions, NGOs and communities to work together to protect and promote the rights of garment workers. NUK continues to provide secretariat services for the Alliance and promotes constructive dialogue and evidence–based advocacy.

ii. Retrenched Workers Association

iii. NUK has earned an excellent reputation with the Ministry of Commerce and is often invited to share its experience in social compliance, worker rights, housing and safety issues.

The Government of Bangladesh states in its Poverty Reduction Strategy (2005-7) that the Government needs to play a supportive role in conjunction with NGOs and social organisations on the one hand and employers and trade bodies on the other in creating a decent work environment.'

NUK’s achievements:

•  Certification of compliant garment factories

•  Implementation of the 2006 Minimum Wage Policy

•  Significant reduction in worker harassment and abuse

•  Increased transparency and communication between workers and management

•  Re-training of women drop-outs from garment factories in non–traditional professions (driver, security guard) and ensuring employment

•  Model worker hostels

NUK ran mobile factory based clinics and now advises on this model .

Financing :

Social compliance and remediation is mostly financed on a full cost recovery basis by participating factories and international buyers.

Research and advocacy activities are funded by NUK's own funds, small grants and mandates.

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