Government Policy

How Bangladeshi migrant Maya became a voice of workers rights in Jordan

Maya Aktar, an apparel worker from Bangladesh, represents other migrants employed in the sector, in Jordan.

She has become involved in the union movement and made a positive difference in the lives of others – positioning her to be an advocate for women and migrant workers.

Six years ago, Maya left her home in Bangladesh for a job at a garment factory in Jordan, with no idea what the future would hold.

“I was 19. My father owned a small fruit shop in Dhaka and my mother worked at home sewing and selling clothes. There are six of us in the family. We could hardly make ends meet,” she said.

“I thought that I could support the family financially by working in Jordan. I also hoped to save money to go to university.”

The first time Maya went, she worked as a receptionist at a factory in Irbid, a city in northern Jordan.

When she returned home after her contract ended, she found out that her father had cancer and that her family’s financial problems had worsened.

In addition to her native language, Bangla, Maya is fluent in Hindi and in English. So when she went back to Jordan, she worked as a liaison officer at a garment factory in Sahab, assisting management and workers to communicate better.

One day, Maya met Arshad, who was an organiser in the General Trade Union of Workers in Textile, Garment, and Clothing Industries. He explained what a union organiser does.

She told Arshad that it would be a dream come true for her to get the chance to help champion other workers and speak up on behalf of those who cannot.

“To my surprise, Arshad reached out to me a few months later, asking if I was interested in the position. I agreed,” Maya said.

“It was liberating. I was like a fish that had been living in a pond and had moved to a river. I was so honoured to be able to represent migrant workers. Being multilingual and a good communicator enabled me to represent and help many workers who only speak their native languages.”

Maya started her work as a union organiser in November 2020.

One of her top priorities was to identify the issues that migrant workers faced and find solutions through open lines of communication with garment factory management.

Arranging meetings with workers was a challenge at first because of their long work hours.

Many also hesitated to open up, even to a representative from Bangladesh. Some were afraid of losing their jobs and had managers that had advised them against cooperating with union organisers.

But Maya was determined to ensure these workers would get their voices heard. She promised them anonymity and met with them outside their workplaces to help them feel comfortable to express themselves.

Some workers do not know how to present their complaints, and others avoid talking about their problems for fear of punishment or losing their jobs.

Some workers, for instance, had been kept on by their employers after their contract ended, but then lost the right to a plane ticket home, or an end of contract bonus.

Others have come to Maya about experiences of sexual harassment. Some reported delays in receiving their salaries or arguments they have had with their supervisors.

Most workers from 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 multilingual has helped Maya represent and support many workers.

However, under Covid restrictions, she could not hold in-person meetings with workers and had to rely on telephone calls to see how the workers were doing.

During the lockdown, many workers wanted to return to their countries but could not travel because the airport was shut down.

Maya had to explain the difficult situation and offer counsel to these workers, who often remained stranded in Jordan.

Helping and empowering migrant workers has been one of the most rewarding experiences for Bangladesh’s Maya.

“I plan to become a trainer so I can help migrant workers even more. I also want to do a degree in psychology, which will help me understand people better. I think that my success in becoming a union organiser is a success for all of us who are migrant workers in Jordan,” Maya says.

Sixty million workers across the developing world rely on the garment industry for their livelihoods. The vast majority of these workers are women.

Jordan’s garment sector employs more than 65,000 workers, 72 percent of whom are women.

Migrant workers make up 76 per cent of the workforce, with nearly 80 percent of workers coming from Bangladesh. They face unique challenges regarding language and representation.

Source: United News of Bangladesh