First person: “I speak for those who cannot” |
“I left my home in Bangladesh for a job in a garment factory in Jordan six years ago, I had no idea what the future held for me. But I took an unexpected step that changed my life.
I was 19 years old. My father owned a small fruit shop in Dhaka and my mother worked at home sewing and selling clothes. We are six in the family. We could barely make ends meet.
I thought I could support the family financially by working in Jordan. I was also hoping to save money to go to college.
The first time I went there, I worked as a receptionist in a factory in Irbid. When I returned home after the end of my contract, I discovered that my father had cancer and that our family’s financial problems had worsened.
Besides my mother tongue, Bengali, I am fluent in Hindi and English. So when I returned to Jordan, I worked as a liaison officer in a garment factory in Sahab, helping management and workers to communicate better.
© ILO/ Wael Liddawi
From a pond to a river
One day I met Mr. Arshad, who was an organizer of the General Union of Textile, Garment and Garment Workers. He explained what a union organizer does.
I told Mr. Arshad that it would be a dream come true for me to have the chance to help defend other workers and speak out for those who cannot.
To my surprise, Mr. Arshad contacted me a few months later asking if I was interested in the job. I agreed.
It was liberating. I was like a fish that had lived in a pond and moved to a river. I was so honored to be able to represent migrant workers.
Being a polyglot and a good communicator has allowed me to represent and help many workers who only speak their mother tongue.
A bridge between workers and management
I started my work as a union organizer in November 2020.
One of my main priorities was to identify the problems that migrant workers faced and find solutions through open lines of communication with the management of the garment factory.
Organizing meetings with the workers was initially a challenge due to their long working hours. Many were also reluctant to open up, even to a representative from Bangladesh. Some were afraid of losing their jobs and had managers who advised them against cooperating with union organizers because they thought we would cause trouble.
But I was determined to ensure that these workers make their voices heard. I promised them anonymity and met them outside of their workplace to help them feel comfortable enough to speak up
Some workers do not know how to present their complaints and others avoid talking about their problems for fear of being punished or losing their jobs.
Some workers, for example, were retained by their employer after their contract ended, but then lost the right to a plane ticket home or an end-of-contract bonus. Others have come to me about experiences of sexual harassment. Some reported delays in receiving their salaries or arguments they had with their supervisors.
© ILO/ Wael Liddawi
Most workers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and other countries do not speak or read Arabic or English. When instructions, announcements and financial documents are in these languages, it can create problems for workers. Being a polyglot and a good communicator allowed me to represent and help many workers. I am proud to be able to help them overcome these language barriers.
I have also participated in different training programs organized by Better Work Jordan, covering issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace, effective communication, personal hygiene, collective bargaining, working conditions and legislation work. These trainings have positioned me to be a better advocate for women and migrant workers. Helping and empowering migrant workers has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Under COVID-19 restrictions, I couldn’t hold face-to-face meetings with workers and had to rely on phone calls to see how workers were doing. During the lockdown, many workers wanted to return to their country but were unable to travel because the airport was closed. I had to explain the difficult situation and offer advice to these workers, who often got stuck in Jordan.
Helping and empowering migrant workers has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Being able to act as their representative gives me meaning and motivates me to keep moving forward.
I am also happy to be able to continue sending money to my family in Bangladesh and I am proud of my representation of other Bengalis.
I plan to become a trainer to be able to help migrant workers even more. I also want to do a degree in psychology, which will help me understand people better.
I think my success as a union organizer is a success for all of us who are migrant workers in Jordan.
A version of this story first appeared on the website of our colleagues at the International Labor Organization (ILO).