It came as a big surprise to the many women working in Bangladesh's textile factories. After days of protests for better working conditions by thousands of seamstresses, factory owners have announced the closure of textile operations, adding that even more closures were imminent.
The news was a shock for many, said Shireen Huq, an activist and founder of the women's rights organization, Naripokkho. "The workers, when they protested, demanded to be taken seriously and not to be faced with closure. This is definitely not what the workers wanted. The closing hardly affects the lives of the owners, but it is very detrimental to the lives of many workers who don't even earn decent wages to begin with," she stressed.
In late April, an eight-story office and factory building collapsed in Savar, a suburb of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. According to official figures, 1,127 bodies were pulled from the rubble and 2,438 people suffered injuries.
In response to the disaster, the government shut down 22 textile factories in which the safety of employees could not be ensured, reported Amirul Haque Amin, chairman of the Bangladesh textile union, National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF). ""We agree because workers cannot work in unsafe buildings. But we demand compensation and payment of wages," he said.
Negotiation, not closure
In the Ashulia industrial complex, not far from the collapsed building, hundreds of textile factories are supposed to be closed. Some the country's most important manufacturers are among the roughly 500 factories located there.
On Monday (13.05.2013), the workers at some 400 factories left their jobs to demand higher wages and the hanging of the owner of the collapsed building. Amirul Haque Amin argues that closing factories is wrong. "A factory closure is not good for workers, or for management. Workers need negotiation, employers need to see how they can negotiate, or resolve this unrest. Closing down factories is not a good way," he said.
Many textile workers are now afraid of losing their jobs. Shilpi Akhtar is one of them. The 25-year-old seamstress works for Star Garments in Dhaka. Her husband is unemployed and she feed a family of five with her wages of 46 euros a month. "It is difficult economically for our family. What we need are not factory closings, but rather, higher wages and better safety in the workplace," she said.
Minimum wages and trade unions
Under pressure from national and international public opinion, the government in Bangladesh has been forced to respond. It has decided to raise the legal minimum wage, which currently stands at about 30 euros a month, although it is not clear when the commission of government representatives, employers and workers will set the new minimum wage and how high it will be.
In addition, the government has also agreed to a change in the law to allow factory workers in future to organize in independent trade unions and pursue collective bargaining agreements with employers. The precise language of this new law has not been made public, so union leader Haque Amin said he would rather wait before commenting on it.
Women's activist, Shireen Huq is less reserved. The right of workers to join a trade union has been a key demand for a long time, she told Deutsche Welle. "If the workers had been union organized, no one could have forced them to work on the day the building collapsed," she said.
But not all unions are the same, she pointed out. "The trade union movement in this country is very divided along political party lines. And they are more loyal to political parties than to workers interests. So it is our concern that the unions which are formed in the textile sector must be independent of political parties and their loyalty and interest should be that of the textile workers and not of political parties," she emphasized.
Shireen Huq takes part in the 'national dialogue', an official round of discussions in Dhaka that brings together government and business leaders as well as representatives from trade unions and civil society. "Together, we want to ensure that such a disaster never happens again," Huq said.
The participants in the talks have identified five fundamental demands: in addition to higher wages and union membership, the issues include better safety in the workplace, life- and accident insurance partly financed by employers and better healthcare for employees.
"We don't want retailers and buyers to leave Bangladesh. Some have said they don't want to buy any more clothes from Bangladesh. That is the wrong response. We want the sector to be protected, as it includes the largest number of women workers in this country. And the fact that women are working in the garment industry has had a positive effect on the country's social fabric. It has made for positive changes in the lives of women and their families," Huq noted.
In the meantime, there has been some movement at the international level. Several global players in the retail clothing industry have negotiated a five-year accord with the International Labor Organization (ILO). New guidelines have been agreed on to strengthen worker rights, improve building safety with more fire protection, expand vocational training and provide financial support.
If these guidelines are actually implemented it will be the birth of a new era for textile workers, like Shilpi Akhtar - with more job and economic security.