(Re-)imagining the future of trade unions in Bangladesh

What are the challenges and opportunities facing organized labour in Bangladesh? We spoke with civil society leader Shakil Ahmed.

What is the purpose of trying to visualise your future? As countries develop at a fast pace due to widely varied reasons such as technological development, climate change or companies suddenly choosing new business models it is easy to feel out of control. For some, it might feel that no matter what we do, we are steered towards a future which we cannot influence. Especially in a country like Bangladesh where the possibilities to access education and skill development, and social- and labour rights are limited it might be easy to just resign and passively adapt.

This is, however, wrong, according to Shakil Ahmed, part of the leadership team atAcumen Academy, Bangladesh. Over several years, he has been facilitating trainings and workshops with youths, students as well as trade unions on how to conceptualize and work towards alternative futures. Recently, FES Bangladesh spoke with him to let him further explain his thoughts. On the question on what he strives to do, he answers:

A lot of people think that the future is fixed, that there is only one future. But I think that more people are becoming more open to multiple futures - that our choices can shape the future we want to work towards. And I think maybe that is a shift and a part of my work, to use futures in plural much more. People should not just be bogged down in seeing one set future as the only option.

He continues:

I think that you have a choice, three of us have a choice, even a hundred of us have a choice. And if you make a different choice, you might potentially have a different future. The reason that idea of plural futures is good is that you create your narrative of the future you want. Of course, things come up that might prevent it but then, like a ninja, you can adapt.

To create your own narrative is an important goal in Shakil’s workshops. He argues that the creation of a narrative based on “another” reality is key to change worldviews on what the future can look like. This new narrative can change views and compete with established “truths” on for example gender stereotypes. Putting it in the context of trade unions in Bangladesh, Shakil states that an accepted “truth” is the lack of safety in factories. However, not necessarily safety as only physical but as:

Safety in a number of different aspects is improved. It is about physical safety, but also emotional and financial security or how people treat each other in the workplace. It’s harassment and power balances on the floor. Countering the fear of talking about your rights.

In his work with trade unionists, he therefore let the participants articulate a narrative on what safety they want, why safety is important and how to work for it with the aim to increase the agency of the participants. One the on hand, this lets the participants gain an increased understanding of each other and to work towards the same goal. On the other, the creation of a counter narrative where the vision of the future is different can make it easier for the public to become aware of other possibilities and realities. If such as a counter narrative takes root among wider groups, the pressure on policy makers to do something about the lack of safety will increase. Thus, he argues that the point is to change our world views. If we do not, true systemic change will also not happen.

So, what does the future for trade unions look like in Bangladesh? An issue that often comes up is a lack of awareness in society of what trade unions are and what they do. Shakil argues that the reason is that the idea of trade unions is not deeply anchored in Bangladesh. Children do not learn about them in school, and they get little exposure in everyday society. He himself had little awareness of what the trade unions were and what they worked for before becoming involved with them through work. Perhaps as a consequence, trade unions have sometimes become a separate entity from workers, where the members do not necessarily work for what is needed. Shakil wants to raise a warning flag when looking into the future for trade unions.

I have seen people that have been trying to use trade unions as a foundation for their careers before actually working for something.  Sometimes, you find scepticism that they are no longer there to address the tensions that they were made for in the first place. Because you hear narratives about how there are people who are a part of trade unions but not themselves workers. Their whole career is about being part of the trade union but without working a day.

Some have argued that what is needed is a generational change. They argue that the hierarchical structure in Bangladesh, including trade unions, makes it difficult for new ideas to be fostered. If young workers and trade union leaders had the possibility to voice their opinions, things could have been different, in this view. However, Shakil argues that it is not that easy and that the voices of the old also holds merit. The responsibility lies on all.

In trade unions, what we see is also a part of the political culture. Whoever is senior is getting the respect and you do not question that person. It’s easy to say that the leadership has to change but I think it’s both ways. As long as old people are not only there just to lecture, and they are open to exchanging information, ideas, and both are willing to pivot, I think it will be better. However, the older you get, the harder you might find it to pivot yourself. You get more dependencies so you find it more difficult to change. I think people are sometimes afraid of young people because they can pivot themselves in any way they want to. They are less dependent. Even if young people say that older people are controlling them, some young people also have to raise the issue. Someone has to take ownership on how to work across generations.

And in regard to the vision of the future, it is important that we do not get ahead of ourselves. What has almost become a buzzword among trade unions and NGOs working with labour rights is the 4th industrial revolution. But is it really that simple?

People talk about the 4th industrial revolution and how the Future of Work is coming about, but whose revolution is the 4th industrial revolution?  Some people have not even gone through the second industrial revolution, of widespread electrical power, in terms of how they live their lives. The question is how much we are being reactive to technologies coming and how much are we being proactive in terms of thinking “this is the world we want, and therefore this is what we need”. Right now, I feel like we are driven by industry or technology and not really what we need.

Shakil Ahmed is an educator, futurist and storyteller and part of the leadership team at Acumen Academy Bangladesh. He has conducted numerous futures thinking workshops, such as on the futures of work in 2040 with young trade union leaders in collaboration with FES and the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies and on the futures of education in 2041 with public and private stakeholders in collaboration with a2i, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Government of Bangladesh.

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