A new documentary film by Bangladeshi born film producer and researcher, Chaumtoli Huq, aims to highlight the ongoing struggle of garment factory workers to organise and unionise across Bangladesh.
According to the 2017 Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Report, 4 million women are employed by the garment industry in Bangladesh, a sector harbouring hostility towards its unions.
These women will on average work for 72 plus hours a week and will take home only AUD$114 a month which is less than a quarter of what is needed to survive.
Despite earning tuppence, the new film by Ms Huq, Sramik Awaaz: Workers' Voices, shows that garment factory workers are powerful working women who want to fight for a better life for themselves and their families.
Born in Bangladesh, Ms Huq now works primarily in New York city around migrant labour rights. However, a piece of her heart has always remained in Bangladesh and this motivated her visit to Dhaka after the Rana Plaza disaster that killed some 1,100 garment workers.
To chat about her film and the plight of garment factory workers, I caught up with Chaumtoli Huq from Dhaka.
Source: Chaumtoli Huq
What motivated you to produce this film?
In 2014-15 I was awarded a fellowship to research post Rana Plaza labour conditions. I was here primarily as a researcher and when I came to Bangladesh one of the things I began to question was how I would share my findings with a wide audience.
The film came about in a very organic way. I found a local film maker, Mohammad Romel, and we started working together. It chronicles the lives of garment workers who are organising. It is essentially an organising film.
What are some of the key point you wanted to show in the film?
I always had the intention to counter a couple of narratives that exist in the progressive world.
One, in the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia, we think that workers don’t have the ability to fight for what they want, but these workers have agency. They’re involved in conversations at a grassroots level all across the garment industry.
Another thing is that in this current geopolitical climate there is a misconception about muslim women. The majority of women who work in the garment factories in Bangladesh are Muslim, but that isn't translated as much in words to the world.
All over the world we have this caricature of the docile Muslim woman who doesn't really fight for herself and who is subordinated by her husband, but I want to show these women in a very different light.
They wear hijabs, they’re very much rooted in their faith and they're also badass organisers.
When they screened the film outside of Bangladesh in London, the US and Australia, people were blown away. I’m hearing feedback from people who say they were amazed at the level of sophistication in the worker’s analysis and their determination.
Source: Chaumtoli Huq
What are some of the key themes in the film?
One of my favourite takeaways from the film is the fact that the entire cast and crew were Bangladeshi. It is a film about Bangladeshi women, made with cultural workers who’re Bangladeshi, albeit most of the crew were Bangladeshi men. I’m a Bangladeshi woman and I’m leading the crew throughout the journey which makes for a very powerful film.
In the film I show the gender component. Women being comfortable sharing their stories of domestic violence or other forms of violence against their organising is very powerful and uplifting. How women shoulder and navigate so much is inspiring.
One of the women I interviewed is currently in an unhealthy relationship but she, and this might be shocking to westerner, is managing her husband so she can then do the organising in her work life. You see the personal negotiations that women make for the bigger cause. Of course I’m not romanticising her and I’m not validating the violence but it shows the reality for women.
In Australia, there is a lot of negative press around unions and organised labour in the workforce. On a global scale, conservative-minded leaders including President Trump and Prime Ministers May and Turnbull are fighting against organised unions. Despite all this your film shows organised labour is increasing in the eastern world. Why do you think this is?
I wanted to show a distinction between organised labour and unions but a lot of the people I interviewed spoke about unionisation. They saw that unionisation was key to achieving leverage in a global business model where in the supply chain they're the most vulnerable.
The broader question we should be asking is why globally unionisation has declined. To me it is a result of the social economic forces in the 80s and the 90s which we broadly call neoliberalism. This involved deregulating a lot of substantial legal rights and really putting forward the idea of individual rights over collective rights.
In addition to this there are conservative groups, in the United States, who are challenging unionisation. They base their arguments on cases of union corruption, but any human institution is open mistakes and errors.
Unions, like any organisation run by people, are subject to lots of corruption and vulnerabilities but when you look at how workers gain economic security, especially where there is a push towards diminishing wages and rights, they get the most security through organisation and unionisation. This is particularly true for women and people of colour.
Studies show the economic position of women and people of colour improves substantially when they're unionised. Also when you unionise a working woman you see those benefits flow down the generations. Women, just like in Bangledesh, see that unions lead to job security.
Source: Chaumtoli Huq
In Bangladesh is there much opposition to what these women are doing?
The short answer is yes.
It wasn't until the disaster at Rana Plaza that the European Union and the US started to push Bangladesh to change some of their labour laws and increase some of the wages.
A sign of the battle these women are facing is that we have a police called the Industrial Police and they were set up to squash any disturbance within the garment industry. The industry in Bangladesh is valued at $25 billion and it about three quarters of Bangladesh’s foreign currency so the country relies upon it heavily.
They can’t afford any disturbances and they see unionisation as a disturbance that would threaten this industry, so there is a lot of crack down. In December of 2016 workers took to the streets to protest for higher wages and they were met by a strong and physical police force. Some 30 leaders were arrested, charged with false offences and sent to jail.
Most of the stories from the women interviewed in the film have a story of being beaten up. It is horrible. What is worse is that the brutality comes from people in positions of authority and a lot of these women say they're prepared to die for their causes.
Is there any notion within Bangladesh that people in the western world are aware of their fight for economic equality?
The organisations and the people I spoke to want others to understand their conditions. On April 24, which is the anniversary of Rana Plaza, I showed the film in seven US cities, in London and later on in Melbourne and from there you saw that these viewers wanted to do something.
I do think there is a lot of care and desire to make ethical choices for what we are wearing and that it isn't at the expense of a woman’s rights, but caring and doing something is a skill and we need think more about how we can implement more action.
We tried to show these women in a relatable light. We showed their home lives and where they lived so people could understand and relate on more levels. There is one woman who is a domestic violence survivor and she wants to fight for more rights for more women, and that theme of survival and her situation is painfully relatable to many.
Hearing these stories will hopefully make people feel more energised to get involved in some way.
Source: Chaumtoli Huq
The QUO will be presenting a special screening of Chaumtoli Huq’s film, Sramik Awaaz: Workers' Voices, on July 19 at Chauvel Cinémathèque. The film is being presented in conjunction with Zeitgeist Label, a sustainable fashion brand that fights for conscious consumption. You can buy tickets here.