Trade Union Movement
Trade Union Movement organised activities of workers to improve their working conditions. In the early stage of industrial development when there were personal contacts between employers (master) and workers (employee), there was no need of any organisation to determine relations between the two. But under the modern factory system the personal touch is absent and the relations between the employer and the worker have come under strain. The conflict of interests between buyer and seller of labour power has become conspicuous and this has led to the rise of trade union movement throughout the world. The tradition of the parallel development of the nationalist and the trade union movement, which had originated in British India continued through the Pakistan period down to the birth of Bangladesh.
For the first time in India the Bombay Mill Hands Association was formed on 24 April 1890. This gave impetus to the trade union movement in British India. The establishment of ILO in 1919 provided a source of inspiration for the workers to organise themselves and shape their destiny. India's membership of the same exerted great influence in the formation of a central organisation of workers called 'All India Trade Union Congress' (AITUC) in 1920 for the purpose of conducting and co-ordinating the activities of the labour organisations.
The period from 1924 to 1935 may be considered as the era of revolutionary trade union movement. MN Roy, Muzaffer Ahmed, SA Dange and Shawkat Osmani led the trade union movements and as a result the political consciousness among industrial workers increased. To control the movement, the British government adopted ruthless measures (eg, Kanpore Conspiracy Case and Meerat Conspiracy Case) against the militant workers and trade union leaders, but no strategy could suppress the trade union movement; rather the colonial resistance invigorated the movement against the colonial power. Later, the trade union movement was closely linked with nationalist movements and the working class started vigorous struggle for emancipation from extreme repression and economic exploitation by the colonial regime.
At the time of Partition of Bengal (1947), most trade union leaders were Hindus and when they migrated to India, a void was created in leadership in the trade union movement of Pakistan, especially in its eastern wing. Moreover, the institutions to advance workers' interest were mostly situated in areas outside Pakistan. There were barely 75 registered trade unions in the whole of Pakistan, compared to 1987 in undivided India in 1946. Of this small number of trade unions, the larger share fell to West Pakistan, leaving only a very few for the eastern wing, where there were only 141 factories with 28,000 workers and 30 unions in all with a total of 20,000 members.
During Pakistan period most trade union leaders held conflicting views and the trade unions were fragmented and weakened. As a result, the trade union movement met a setback and the trade union activities passed into the hands of petty bourgeoisie leadership. Moreover, the trade union movement in Pakistan was characterised by fragmentation of unions, prolonged strikes, retaliatory lockouts and picketing which sometimes led to violence.
As the trade union movement in Bangladesh originated in British India and Pakistan, it naturally retained its old character of working more as a nationalist force against colonial domination than as a class force vis-a-vis capitalist exploitation. As a result, the trade union movement of the region that had gained momentum in the hands of political leaders stood divided along the political and/or ideological lines in independent Bangladesh.
During this period, the trade union movement was marked by direct interference by the government and the ruling party in its internal affairs. In many industrial belts terrorism was let loose by the men of the labour front of the then ruling party and tried to drive out the honest trade unionists from the leadership of the unions. Moreover, the barring of outsiders from trade union leadership at the basic union level made the process of union hijacking very easy and turned the workers into a very weak and defenseless community.
In the early 1980s, the military government of Bangladesh banned all trade union activities in the country. Then an alliance of the National Federation of Trade Unions (NFTUs) emerged in the name of SRAMIK KARMACHARI OIKYA PARISHAD (SKOP) to establish the democratic rights of workers as well as to fulfil their economic demands. Most NFTUs were in SKOP and since 1983, most trade union movements in Bangladesh have been organised under the leadership of SKOP.
The opportunism and lenient attitude of the trade union leaders including SKOP gave the ruling regimes a chance to disregard the agreements signed between the government and the trade union leaders. At present, the leaders of nineteen of the twenty three NFTUs are included in the SKOP. After its formation, SKOP submitted a 5-point charter of demands for establishing their democratic rights and higher wages through rallies, torch processions, demonstrations, strikes, hartals, blockades etc.
Ironically, SKOP failed to yield any tangible results for the working class people of the country. The effectiveness of the trade union movement under the leadership of SKOP gradually weakened because most SKOP leaders have political affiliations and therefore, cannot escape the influence of their respective political parties. Moreover, lack of active support by the major political parties to SKOP's programmes, excessive pressures on government by the private employers and donor agencies to disregard SKOP's demands using repressive measures to disrupt the trade union movement, forcible occupation of unions, bribing of trade union leaders, opportunistic and compromising attitude of the union leadership rendered the SKOP demands ineffective. In fact, SKOP has become a moribund forum of the working class with little to offer to the country's future trade union movements. [Abdul Awal Khan]