A Contextual Analysis of the Governance and Political Economy of Labour Organizations in the RMG Sector of Bangladesh

The study aims to conduct an objective and empirical analysis of the political landscape of labour organizations, such as trade unions and worker participation committees, in the readymade garments (RMG) sector of Bangladesh through rigorous qualitative research and extensive stakeholder mapping.

Researchers: Dr Mirza M. Hassan; Syeda Salina Aziz; Kabita Chowdhury; Ghulam Murshed; Rafsanul Hoque; Insiya Khan; Samia Musherrof; Raeesa Rahemin 

Partners: Institute of Development Studies

Timeline: MarchDecember 2021

Status: Completed

Method: Qualitative

Contact: Syeda Salina Aziz


Working paper: The Political Economy of the Landscape of Trade Unions in Bangladesh: The Case of the RMG Sector


In recent years, the de jure and de facto roles and functions of trade unions (TU) and worker participation committees (WPC) have been intensively scrutinized and debated by the concerned stakeholders as well as by local and global researchers. Unfortunately, such debates often tend to be informed by highly conflicting partisan interests and discursive or normative positions. Policy outcomes of such debates and research is crucial since these tend to affect relevant policy formulations, institutional design, and actual reforms in relations to TU and WPC governance. We believe there is a great need for an objective, robust, and rigorous empirical analysis of the current landscape of TUs and WPCs.


The study aims to understand how TUs and WPCs function in the readymade garments (RMG) sector of Bangladesh, and whether they are able to maintain disciplined, productive, and positive-sum industrial relations in the sector. The study also examines the kinds of policy and institutional reforms needed for TUs and WPCs to play a better role in establishing and maintaining the industrial relations. Finally, it seeks to answer whether WPCs can be a substitute for TUs in this regard.


We will conduct an extensive mapping of stakeholders (who they are, their respective powers, and relative institutional capacity as collective actors) and perceptions (their attitudes, interests, and incentives in relation to TUs and WPCs) utilizing in-depth qualitative methods. To provide an analytical account of the broader context, a review of the related important academic and policy literature will be conducted. Key informant interviews (KIIs) and focus group discussions (FGDs) will be conducted (online) with workers, TU and WPC leaders, factory owners, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) leaders, factory management staff, buyers, relevant government officials, civil society leaders, and relevant academic experts. FGDs will be conducted among three categories of respondents: worker members of TUs and WPCs, TU and WPC leaders and civil society representatives. Research sites will include the districts of Dhaka and Gazipur.

Findings and Recommendations

The study reveals the paradox of trade unionism in the RMG sector, where TUs are beneficial agents for the workers, but fail to represent them. This is due to the decades-long anti-labour political settlement between the political elites and RMG factory owners. TU leaders and labour movements are being portrayed as anti-state activities, creating an unfavourable political opportunity structure for the growth of TUs. Left politics and trade unionism are important factors for the limited growth of TUs. Workers’ rational disincentives to joining TUs are shaped by de facto barriers, norms/values, and their sense of rights and entitlements. Factory management uses indirect and stealth strategies to compel workers to join TU, including manipulation of laws, false cases, and humiliating punishment.


The study is part of the Covid Collective initiative. Supported by the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Covid Collective is based at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). The Collective brings together the expertise of UK and Southern-based research partner organizations and offers a rapid social science research response to inform decision-making on some of the most pressing development challenges related to COVID-19.