Conflict and Cooperation: The Relation of NGOs and Trade Unions in Bangladesh's Rmg Sector

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 14:30
Location: Hörsaal 32 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Elisabeth FINK, Frankfurt University, Germany
A closer look at countries of the global south reveals the Eurocentrism that underlies the assumption regarding the close correlation between a strong presence of civil society actors and democracy. Whereas, in one context, NGOs are widely seen as progressive societal actors who make the state accountable, in the other, NGOs are critiqued for acting as parallel states which lack any accountability. This holds particularly true in the context of Bangladesh, where the NGO sector is exceptionally large and influential. Many Bangladeshi NGOs regularly receive funds from international donors. As a result, a significant depoliticisation of developmental NGOs, which mainly focus on the rural population of Bangladesh, was observed (Feldman 2003, Kabeer et al 2010, Stiles 2002). Within the last two decades, labour NGOs as well as some trade unions who work in the ready-made garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh have similarly received growing attention by transnational civil society networks and various organisations.

Against this backdrop and based on my fieldwork in Dhaka, that took place between 2010 and 2012, the proposed paper sheds light on the relation between local labour activism and transnational collective action. Therefore, the following questions will be discussed: What is the relation between international donors, transnational civil society actors and local labour organisations? Is there any evidence of a transnational social movement unionism in Bangladesh’s RMG sector? Are donors, through the help of local NGOs, weakening the role of trade unions? Are NGOs contributing to – as a trade unionist whom I interviewed put it – ‘peaceful exploitation of the workers’? Given the high percentage of women workers in the RMG sector and the still commonly deployed stereotyped portrayal of the ‘third world woman’, what are the gendered implications of transnational activism?