Remodelling Bangladesh’s trade unions amid the pandemic

For four years, the Academy of Work has been training the next generation of trade union leaders in Bangladesh.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going" – the saying goes well with the latest Academy of Work (AoW) that took place in 2020, the year in which the earth was shivering in its orbit, spinning at a slower and yet digitally faster pace due to the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic at first threw us into a complete shutdown around the world and then led to an outburst of new ways of engagement. Notwithstanding, the AoW managed to remodel itself in the face of adversity.

It has been four consecutive years since 2017 that the academy is running and growing, offering a unique, academically certified training programme for middle-level trade union leaders. Through the Academy, FES is supporting a generational transformation within the trade union landscape alongside its two dedicated partner organizations: the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), a leading trade union institute, and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), a renowned academic institution. The AoW completed its 4th batch in 2020, consisting of 67 alumni from diverse sectors such as health, construction, leather, banking, and media, cumulating in a mix of views and experiences crucial for its success.

The goal of the AoW is to train a new generation of trade union leaders, who will improve the impact of trade unions in Bangladesh and strengthen the tripartite relations between employers' organizations, state representatives and unions. This will gradually support an emerging generation of prospective trade union practitioners in Bangladesh, who can foster unity within the movement and negotiate eye-to-eye with employers and the government.

"I now know much more about labour laws and workers' rights and overall, how to improve working conditions. Most importantly, I know that informal workers have rights even though they are working in the informal sectors. Now I want to bring together the leaders of workers’ groups and form an organization. I believe it is important that workers have a labour contract with the organization they are working for", said Tuhin Akter (FES AoW Fellow, 4th batch) after taking part in the 2020 programme.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made the implementation of AoW activities arduous. Hitherto, all previous batches attended classes in person, whereas the teaching mode completely changed during the crisis. At the beginning of that year, FES had planned courses for participants attending in person, part of which then had to be taught online to maintain social distancing. Adopting a new combined learning method through both physical and online courses took a great deal of endurance from the fellows, overcoming technical obstacles and quickly building expertise in the use of technical tools. Despite these obstacles, the total number of fellows was 18, the highest number in all the years the courses have been running.

"Fellows join the Academy with a heart filled with dreams. And the Academy of Work tries to spread a handful of colours over their dreams. These colours may not be enough to make their dreams come true, but they find a new direction. My respect and gratitude goes to all partners, trainers, FES colleagues and other stakeholders who have been instrumental in making it happen, especially during the pandemic situation."    - Iqbal Hossain, FES Programme Coordinator, AoW

The Academy of Work enables fellows to develop communication and negotiation skills, such as making presentations and engaging in public speaking. It extends their understanding of national and global trade union issues and familiarizes them with the specific analytical concepts of industrial relations, trade union work and global value chain analysis. The course also provides an opportunity to exchange information and views on the national and international labour movement's current critical issues in order to build networks and alliances beyond their trade union framework. 

Notably, the alumni of the Academy believe that it is a powerful platform for them to get equipped with academic knowledge, while building on their practical experience, which in turn helps them to develop stronger union positions. Some of the AoW Fellows have been part of the decision making on important issues and are now in some critical roles in the trade union sector. Labour changes are happening gradually but surely in Bangladesh. The AoW’s aim is to help shape that change in a consistent, constructive, participatory, and sustainable way.


Iqbal Hossain is a Programme Coordinator at the FES Bangladesh Office. He is coordinating the Academy of Work, Gender and Social Justice, Core Labour Standard Plus and other regional projects.

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