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OUT OF THE BOX Waking up to workers’ rights

It was in 1884 that the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions demanded an eight-hour workday in the United States, and this came into effect on 1 May 1886. Today we celebrate 1 May as the International Labour Day. Ironically, in America where it all started, this is not a national holiday.

But perhaps it is more ironic when we in Bangladesh celebrate Labour Day. Eight-hour workday? Ask the readymade garments workers who work feverishly overtime for a meagre additional wage, ask the housemaids who have no end to their drudgery, ask the day-labourers and the construction workers how fair their eight hours of sheer physical labour feels, especially when their wages keeps them entrenched in abject poverty, ask them all about Labour Day. No don’t ask them. It will only shame us more. What was articulated in 1886, is still a theoretical workday here.

Labour Day is much more than just an eight-hour work day. It is about fair wages, it is about safe working conditions, it is about the dignity of labour, about various facilities including adequate maternity leave, medical allowances, and so on.

The deafening noise of the bricks and mortar crashing to the ground in the Rana Plaza collapse, laced with the cries of terror and pain, still ring loud in the air as we celebrate Labour Day. The acrid smell of ashes in the Tazreen Garments fire still fills our nostrils as we lament the painful death of those burnt alive. The old man still pedals a rickshaw, sweat glistening on his thin body, as young passengers sit in the back, impatiently urging his to go faster. Yes, it’s May Day.

Yes, May Day must be observed. Yes, we must have the customary processions, festoons, special messages and a national holiday. There are all the reasons in the world to observe this day. But perhaps we can do it with more meaning.

The time has come to put pragmatic polices in place.

We can scream ourselves hoarse demanding labour unions in the various industrial belts, in the factories and mills, but is this the answer? It would be, if it was an ideal world. But it is not. The unions we have seen in banks and other institutions have so far been invariably dominated by muscle-men of the government, whichever party may be in power. Or they may be the stronghold of the political opposition. As a result, instead of looking after workers’ rights, such as working hours, health facilities, wages, bonuses and such, they are busy catering to the interests of their respective parties. A labour union of the opposition ilk will create a ruckus at the drop of a hat in order to destabilise the situation. The government-backed labour union will make sure the shortcomings never see the light of day, so as not to expose glitches in governance. What good will such unions do for the workers?

That does not mean we don’t need unions. But we need unions that are specifically representative of the workers’ interests. Given the political nature of anything and everything in Bangladesh, that does not seem plausible at the moment. But it must be done. This is where the workers, the labour leaders, the rights activists, the government, the experts in the field, and others concerned, need to put their heads together and come up with a foolproof formula.

Unions aside, the owners of the factories, the industrialists and the businesspersons, need to be aware of fair labour practices. They need to be sensitised. We have the retrospective advantage of looking back and not making the mistakes of the industrial revolution. Each worker has a face, a name, a family and a heart that beats, a history that has a story to tell.  They are not nameless, faceless wheels and cogs in a vast machine. The management must acknowledge that. And they will gain too. It is a proven fact that better working conditions yield higher production and thereby larger profits. So ensuring workers rights can only lead to a win-win situation.

And thanks mainly to the readymade garment industry, women make up a large chunk of our labour force. Early every morning you see young women, thronging the streets, on their way to work. There is a confidence in their faces, a pride in their step. This is what makes it easier to celebrate Labour Day. Yes, we have come a long way and women are marching ahead, taking the nation along with them.

But what about the women who work in homes, the domestic maids? Unfortunately, a vast majority of them are mistreated. They are beaten, overworked, underpaid and often abused. Even those who claim to be fair are not always able to treat them with a degree of respect. Simply saying “I treat my maid like my own daughter,” is not enough. You are not supposed to treat her like your own daughter. You are to treat her justly and fairly, as any employee should be treated.

Then there is the worst labour of all, child labour. A very urban shameful example is of a little girl having to carry a child almost her own weight and size, feed the child food she may never taste herself, help the child with toys she may never own, then get scolded it she falters in her duties. Are we human?

There is the hazardous labour, often assigned to children. Their longevity is halved in the tender years of their lives as they scrub hides with acid and chemicals in the tannery industry, as they slip under cars in garages to emerge smeared in grease and oil, as they hang on to the back of ramshackle vehicles to collect fare from passengers, as they scrunch up their eyes in the showers of sparks from the welding rod… the list goes on.

It is the responsibility of the government to put laws in place to ensure labour rights. It is for the administration to ensure those laws and followed. It is for the industry and business owners to ensure their workers are given a fair deal. But that is not enough.

There must be a general awareness about the dignity of labour. There must be a change in mindset. Where would the rich garments industry owner be if he did not have an army of efficient workers churning out clothes with speed and precision? He would be lost without them. Before a homeowner says, “I treat the servant boy like my own son,” she should think, would I make my son sleep on the floor of a hot stuffy kitchen at night?

So as May Day is here, we can only hope that lip service will be replaced by action, word replaced by deed. If workers’ rights are promoted and ensured, everyone wins. We can not expect this to materialise overnight, but May Day is a good day to start. Let us make certain pledges on the day… let there be no more Rana Plaza tragedies… let us all live in dignity, pride and honour. Let us all live, not merely subsist.

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