Nazma a former child labourer and garment worker herself is creating a movement where women workers can envision and then create a brighter future for themselves. As a result, Nazma is shifting the narrative of the success of the garments sector in Bangladesh from being that of just national economic prosperity to one that is prosperous for its most important stakeholders as well, the workers themselves.
The New Idea
Nazma Akther believes that by equipping women workers with the proper tools, resources, strategies, and knowledge of their rights, they can be the most powerful drivers to change in the often-exploitative garments sector in the country. By empowering women to be the leaders of the labor rights movement, Nazma is giving them the agency to move away from being passive acceptors of exploitation to now actively changing their own situation. From this insight she has built a network of women leaders, activist groups and other key stakeholders who are cultivating the next generation of leaders, and thus shifting a traditional male dominated movement into one that represents that of the sector's largest stakeholders, the women workers themselves. Core to Nazma’s idea is to create a generative environment that promotes the holistic betterment of the lives of women workers through principles of non-violence, harmonious relationships and creating roles for everyone to play, thus moving away from the victim and perpetrator mentality that activists have always used.
Through her organization, Awaj Foundation, Nazma is taking a multi-step approach to first catalyze women-led organizations to address issues in the RMG sector (including gender based violence, access to health services, fair wages and proper working conditions), identify leaders who can organize and engage in localized movements, sensitize factory management and owners towards their responsibilities, upskill women with relevant skills and finally create harmonious environments for industrial relations through leveraging the existing work of union movements. By working with both the workers as well as those who run and manage factories, Nazma is creating an enabling environment for these women to not just fight for fair wages and decent working conditions but also push for interventions that address their most immediate needs, such as provision of healthcare, family support, childcare support and so forth, which has a direct implication on the productivity of the women. Nazma is also building strong evidence that shows when women are supported through their careers in the RMG sector, there is a direct implication on the success of the business.
The RMG sector in Bangladesh is ripe with economic prosperity on the one hand and human rights violations on the other. As the second largest exporter in the world, the RMG sector accounts for 20% of Bangladesh’s GDP, with over 4,500 factories across the nation. With this high economic prosperity also comes disparaging working conditions, weak labor laws, and frequent violations of human rights. For the 25 million workers in the RMG sector in Bangladesh, most of whom are women, these working conditions leave workers unaware of their rights, without respect in society, and without a collective interest to better their own outcomes.
Given the unstable government, many of the existing labor laws and protections for workers are largely unknown by the workers and the management. They also remain ambiguous and not implemented in many workplaces. If the management is unaware of the protections and policies in place, then they are unable to provide the services to their workers that they have rights to and need. Similarly, if the workers are unaware of their rights, then they are unable to call on the factory management to provide these services and protect their rights as workers.
To fill the gaps in the RMG sector, trade unions began to form in the 1980s as a vehicle for workers to collectively organize to advance their interests and lobby for their rights. Even though women dominate the RMG sector, men initially were the leaders of the trade unions due to the patriarchal roots in Bengali society. The needs of female workers — childcare, protection from gender-based violence and discrimination in the workplace, and maternal leave — are divergent from their male counterparts. This is resulted in a conversation and activism that was largely focused on violent protest and more importantly did not represent the needs of women. A common outcome for most of these trade unions that were represented by men were for them to close down, after periods of violent crackdown and hostility between stakeholders. Similarly, it has been a pattern in Bangladesh for the workers to have a light shed on their predicament only after a major disaster has occurred, such as the Rana Plaza collapse in 2012. Due to the nature of these incidences, much of the reaction is hostile and temporary, often dying down without any significant changes made at all. Similarly, the deeply troubling victim and perpetrator narrative that labor activists have historically used in Bangladesh, has created further divides between stakeholders and has failed to provide shared incentives, narratives and opportunities for people to work together to improve the situation of workers holistically.
At the core of the RMG sector is women. As most workers, women bear the burden of the human rights violations and abuses in the RMG sector. Women are the ones faced with discrimination in the workplace, limited access to vital resources, and a loss of dignity in their personal and professional lives. Women in the RMG sector face an uphill battle with exploitation in the workplace.
Empowering female workers to be the catalysts of change in the RMG sector in Bangladesh forms the basis of Nazma’s inspiration for creating the Awaj Foundation. Nazma imagines a world where workers possess the agency to advocate for their rights, negotiate with factory management for improved working conditions, and increase their individual self-worth. Nazma’s women-centric approach is rooted in the development of new leaders, training of factory management to recognize workers’ rights, and a restoration of the dignity of the RMG worker in Bengali society. Since its impetus Awaj Foundation, under Nazma’s leadership, has led training for over 300,000 workers on a myriad of topics all centred around increasing the dignity and well-being of workers. Of Nazma’s eight programs, each of them relates back to empowering and advancing women to become agents of change.
At the core of Nazma’s work is the intersection between cultivating female leadership and establishing harmonious industrial relations with the factory management. Nazma began her work with the aim of restoring dignity to RMG workers, who traditionally were treated as subordinates in society. The first step in this process is increasing awareness among workers about the minimum wage and the benefits for workers under the Bangladesh Labor Law. Beyond simply informing workers of their rights, Nazma ensures workers are equipped with the proper negotiation skills to advocate for increased wages and better working conditions. Through the Awaj Foundation, Nazma has trained over 27,000 trade union members and cultivated 3,231 trade union leaders, with the majority being women. Moreover, Nazma assists with the creation of worker-led committees and unions, with a focus on female leadership, as space for workers to collectively raise their demands. Beyond empowering workers, Nazma actively improves the workplace through the creation of worker-led safety committees to ensure the factories comply with Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) regulations and the regulations established under the 2015 Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord.
As the majority of RMG workers are women, gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination are rampant in the factories. Noting the prevalence of GBV, Nazma raises awareness of the issue of GBV among female and male workers, in addition to forming anti-harassment committees in factories and administering legal aid for female workers experiencing GBV. Nazma believes informing factory managers on how to create safe and inclusive workplaces for women is central to this movement. At the national level, Nazma advocates for policy changes on the issues of GBV and workplace discrimination.
Taking a holistic approach, Nazma incorporates life skills beyond the factory as one of the central tenants of the Awaj Foundation’s mission. Nazma runs community-based cafes that unite workers to learn valuable life skills such as financial literacy and nutrition management. As the largest legal aid providers in Bangladesh, the Awaj Foundation ensures the protection of workers in workplace disputes in addition to the family and personal needs. Since 2006, the Awaj Foundation has administered legal aid to over 16,000 individuals. In the personal realm, Nazma provides medical services — including HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns and treatment, menstrual hygiene education, and first aid seminars — for workers. Since 2008, the Awaj Foundation has administered medical care to over 8,000 individuals and distributed over 14,000 packs of sanitary napkins. As the majority of RMG workers are women, the Awaj Foundation runs schools and daycare centres for the workers’ children. Through the provision of personal services, workers across Bangladesh are legitimized in all aspects of their lives.
Another integral aspect of Nazma’s work is the establishment of harmonious industrial relations. Nazma informs factory managers on their duties and obligations toward workers under national and international law. Simultaneously, Nazma ensures workers are aware of negotiation strategies to form Collective Bargaining Agreements. Through collaboration with RMG workers and factory management, Nazma guarantees all voices are heard in the process.
Nazma’s eight programs would not be possible without the cultivation of strong leaders, specifically female leaders, within the RMG sector. Building confidence among female workers is essential in ensuring workers voice their concerns and demands. To instill this confidence in female workers, Nazma has established a mentorship network with a sister trade union federation. The development of female leadership is essential to Nazma’s vision.
After successfully cultivating over 3,000 trade union leaders through the Awaj Foundation, Nazma is working to diversify and amplify her impact. Currently, Nazma’s work is focused on female RMG workers. By expanding the Awaj Foundation’s reach into the leather and textile sector, Nazma hopes to provide more workers with the tools and strategies to advocate for their own rights. Beyond Bangladesh, Nazma has programs targeting migrant workers in over sixteen countries. In these programs, migrant workers from Bangladesh are made aware of the potential challenges and abuses they will face working abroad — they are then provided with the proper tools and strategies to combat these rights violations. Since 2016, the Awaj Foundation has assisted 203 migrant workers in filing their complaints. Nazma’s reach extends within and beyond the borders of Bangladesh, ensuring the voices of workers everywhere are heard and amplified.
Currently, the Awaj Foundation serves as an intermediary between the workers and the Bangladeshi government, listening to the concerns of the workers and then lobbying the government for services and policy change. Nazma envisions a world where the Awaj Foundation no longer acts in the capacity of an intermediary. Instead, the Awaj Foundation provides a platform for the workers to lobby the government themselves for these services and rights. By removing the barrier between the government and the workers, the government, and in turn government services, become more accessible to the workers.
Nazma is already envisioning a world where she does not have to be the sole driver of change in the RMG sector. She is actively cultivating other leaders in the movement. She has created sustainable revenue models for her organization such as small fees for the health services provided by the Awaj Foundation. These small changes, coupled with the cultivation of female leadership, ensures long-lasting and large-scale change. So far Nazma has been able to drive concrete changes in the lives of women workers through their own collective action. Moving forward, Nazma is now looking to work in other industries across Bangladesh that also have a high number of women workers and are traditionally seen as informal, thus exploited. This includes construction, jewellery making and domestic helpers. Key to the success of Nazma’s work has been to harmoniously work with all stakeholders to envision a different future, including brands, factory owners and management and the families of workers themselves.
Nazma’s first encounter of injustice was at an early age when she witnessed her father physically assaulting her mother for wearing liberal clothes. Nazma struggled to make sense of why a woman needs to fit into certain societal norms, which are driven by a man’s wants. Growing up in a lower-middle-class family in suburban Dhaka, Nazma was required to work in a garment factory at the age of eleven to support her family’s needs, alongside her mother. During this time, she encountered, again, female oppression by patriarchal norms in the work setting. She felt unsafe and uncomfortable within the garment factory as a result of inhumane working conditions. As a result, Nazma participated in trade unions which were being used as a vehicle to amplify her voice and raise concerns.
In 1991, Nazma was the only female member of the first-ever strike in Bangladesh centred around increasing wages for garment workers. Through organized labour, Nazma observed the power of individuals coming together and demanding justice. During this time Nazma witnessed two key aspects of organized labour. First, trade unions were largely represented and led by men, while the larger population of the garment workers were women. Secondly, because the violent design of the protests by trade union leaders, the police found it easier to utilize violence as a tool of suppression — the male members and leaders of the trade unions were abused, resulting in the fall of trade unions themselves. These two key observations led Nazma to realize the need for female leadership in trade unions. If women-led these movements, then the physical oppression of union members would be diminished as factory owners and police would find it challenging to physically abuse the female leaders in public.
Over the next few years, Nazma became a prominent face in organizing trade unions with a focus on women and disseminating the knowledge of labour laws and workers’ rights. Because of her active participation in organizing non-violent trade unions, management of the factories took notice of her work which was causing their profits to decrease. Nazma was then terminated from her job twice, without pay and received threats from factory management. During this time, Nazma experienced first-hand the informal nature of termination in the RMG sector; she determined the way to achieve better working conditions and rights was through the implementation of formal institutional checks, which would, in turn, lead to greater transparency.
After working for a federation union from 1997 to 2002, where she learned how to organize trade unions at a large scale and how to collaborate with the upper-level management of the factories, Nazma had the opportunity to interact with international governments and European brands to understand their perspectives conducting business in Bangladesh. This allowed Nazma to gain a holistic view of the supply chain, from buyer to seller, and observe the key stakeholders in decision-making that directly affects the lives of the individuals at the bottom of the pyramid.
This movement is led by women, for women. Cultivating a movement of workers’ rights with a women-centric approach is the genesis behind the Awaj Foundation. Simultaneously, Nazma works to initiate a common ground conversation by bridging the disconnect between the factory management and owners and the workers.