Information on women and politics, part 6 of 6: Trade unions [BGD21351.EX]

Information on women and trade union activity is scarce. Bangladesh, with a population of about 120 million, is still overwhelmingly an agricultural country, with 87 per cent of the population residing in the countryside, only three cities of more than 500,000, and a median age of 17 years (Encyclopedia of the Third World 1992, 112). The unionization rate is a very low 3 per cent of the civilian workforce (Trade Unions of the World 1992-93 1991, 35) and women who join trade unions or enter politics are considered "nonconformists" (Begum 1985, 18).

Trade unions in Bangladesh are highly politicized: all or nearly all trade unions and labour centrals are connected to political parties (ibid.; Halim 30 May 1995), generally the ruling party, and unions are quick to switch allegiances if a new party comes to power (ibid.). Sources indicate that it is considered "normal" for a party to establish a union wing as part of a strategy for building a political base in the working class (Trade Unions of the World 1992-93 1991, 35; New Left Review Mar.-Apr. 1988, 119). One source reports that there are about 10 garment workers' unions affiliated to political parties, and that, in general, this relationship is to the benefit of the parties rather than the workers (Commission for Justice and Peace 13 June 1995). Most of the left wing parties have women's fronts whose professed aim is to organize women workers (New Left Review Mar.-Apr. 1988, 119). However, according to Kabeer, the women's fronts "tend to be as concerned with expanding political allegiance to their respective parties as they are with defending the rights of workers," and "men [retain] control at every level of the union and party bureaucracy" (ibid.). According to Kabeer, "women activists are deemed essential, since social segregation inhibits contact between male trade unionists and women workers" (ibid.).

Writing in the mid-1980s, Begum indicates that the government had adopted a very narrow definition of what constituted legitimate political activity. While the women's wings of the political parties were free to operate, the government, distinguishing between socioeconomic and political activities, banned "social welfare" organizations from participating in politics (1985, 18). While favouring a few apolitical social service organizations, it cited security reasons to restrict the activities of organizations demanding full employment, labour law reform, improved wages or a return to democracy (ibid., 19-20).

In the garment industry, one of the largest employers of women in Bangladesh 85 to 90 per cent of the estimated 1.2 million workers are women (Abdul Momen Khan Foundation 1995, 4; Commission for Justice and Peace 13 June 1995) there are few independent trade unions (ibid.; Abdul Momen Khan Foundation 1995, 5; Halim 30 May 1995). Another source indicates that the few unions in the garment industry are employer-controlled (Abdul Momen Khan Foundation 1995, 5).

Recent evidence suggests that women workers may be making some gains, at least in the garment industry, where workers recently formed the Bangladesh Independent Garment-workers Union (BIGU) (Commission for Justice and Peace 13 June 1995). An independent union, BIGU is not supported by the factory owners and reportedly has encountered strong opposition from a powerful association of exporters and employers known as BGMEA (ibid.).

Further information on women and trade union activity could not be found among the sources consulted by the DIRB. For further information on women workers in the garment industry, the reader may wish to consult Hameda Hossain et al., No Better Option? Industrial Women Workers in Bangladesh (Dhaka: University Press, 1990). For the list of attachments and sources consulted, please refer to Response to Information Request BGD21346.EX of 6 October 1995.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the DIRB within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Abdul Momen Khan Memorial Foundation, Dhaka. 1995. "Current Status of Women and Children in Bangladesh; Myths & Realities." Paper presented at an 8 June 1995 CIDA information session, Hull, Québec.

Begum, Maleka. 1985. "Women's Participation in Politics in Bangladesh: Its Nature and Limitations," Women and Politics in Bangladesh. Dhaka: Centre for Women and Development.

Commission for Justice and Peace, Dhaka. 13 June 1995. Letter received from member in response to questions faxed by the DIRB.

Encyclopedia of the Third World. 1992. 4th ed. Vol. 1. Edited by George Thomas Kurian. New York: Facts on File.

Halim, Sadeka. PhD candidate specializing in women and development issues in Bangladesh and India, Department of Sociology, McGill University, Montréal. 30 May 1995. Telephone interview.

New Left Review [London]. March/April 1988. No. 168. Naila Kabeer. "Subordination and Struggle: Women in Bangladesh."

Trade Unions of the World 1992-93. 1991. 3rd ed. Edited by Martin Upham. Harlow, Essex: Longman Group UK Ltd.