Young Bangladeshis push for climate action but workers left out
Young activists from the the platform Youthnet for Climate Justice hold a climate strike asking for a stop to fossil fuel development, Dhaka, March 5, 2023. Sohanur Rahman/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation
What’s the context?
Youth activists are campaigning against coal and tree loss, while workers get little help to adapt to climate impacts
- Green activism enjoys vibrant, growing youth support
- Climate campaigners seek to team up with labour groups
- Workers yet to speak out about climate change impacts
DHAKA - In fast-growing Dhaka, which is losing what is left of its green spaces and water bodies to urban development, residents are rallying to protect their environment and fight climate change.
In May, when the Bangladeshi capital's southern authority wanted to expand a key road, it cut down a few hundred trees, sparking a protest by neighbourhood youth who organised a vigil to save the remaining trees.
Their action was quickly joined by leading green activists and artists - and the city corporation eventually left a few dozen older trees intact.
Rising citizen participation, including by young people, in environmental protests and platforms marks a positive shift in pushing Bangladesh - one of the world's most climate-vulnerable nations - onto a more sustainable development path, said Anu Muhammad, an economics professor at Jahangirnagar University.
"People are now asking questions and raising their voices for protecting the climate, ecology - and their own rights," said Muhammad, who has led opposition to coal mining and its harmful effects on local livelihoods and mangrove forests in the last two decades.
In Bangladesh, where a quarter of the population is aged between 15 and 29, young people are showing a growing interest in activism to tackle global warming and its causes.
The Youthnet for Climate Justice movement, for example, set up in 2016, has campaigned for the cancellation of coal-based power plants in coastal areas of Bangladesh.
Its founder, Sohanur Rahman - whose home in the southwestern coastal district of Jhalakathi was damaged by Cyclone Sidr in 2007 - launched the first Bangladesh youth-led climate strike in 2019, inspired in part by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg.
This advocacy helped push the Bangladesh parliament to pass a motion declaring a "planetary emergency" that year - and the group has since forged alliances with international movements, including Fridays for Future and 350.org, calling on rich G7 nations not to invest in Bangladesh's coal sector.
"Speaking out against fossil fuel investments was not an easy task, but we thought there is no alternative to such climate actions if we want to save the planet," said Rahman.
The next priority for the climate movement, he added, is to broaden its base and include other social groups like workers, Indigenous or transgender people, who have yet to become involved in supporting environmental causes on a large scale.
More voices needed
A new report by UK-based think-tank Climate Strategies and Dhaka's University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) urges the Bangladesh government to listen more to the concerns of different communities, including workers and women, as it aims to grow its economy and combat climate change.
The study, which explores "the case for just transitions" in the South Asian nation's energy, agricultural and garment industries, says an emerging shift towards greener, low-carbon practices in those sectors should prioritise the rights of vulnerable groups, such as smallholder farmers.
Shamsad Mortuza, a professor at ULAB and one of the authors of the study, called for an effort to "identify and reach out to marginalised groups and get their voices heard to ensure a just climate transition".
The report recommends designing new skills programmes for workers, developing materials to educate students about a green transition, and bringing government ministries together with business and civil society to enable more coherent planning.
Jahangirnagar University professor Muhammad said participation of workers in discussions and other initiatives has so far been limited.
Samantha Sharpe, research director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, said climate change is already significantly affecting working conditions in countries like Bangladesh, leading to work-hour losses, an increase in gender-based violence and rising occupational health risks.
"And this impact will only strengthen as the planet gets warmer," she said.
The Bangladesh government has made some effort to gauge how climate change will play out for the workforce. For example, the national climate prosperity plan, published in 2021, predicts that spiking temperatures will result in productivity losses equivalent to 3.83 million full-time jobs by 2030.
Yet, despite potential climate-related problems for workers' health, conditions and livelihoods, labour organisations have so far limited their lobbying to more traditional concerns such as better wages, benefits and safety issues.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, said workers are so preoccupied by meeting their basic needs that they lack the knowledge and courage to join social movements on wider issues like climate or environment.
Amin's organisation - affiliated with the international trade union body IndustriAll - has joined other garment workers' unions in calling for an increase in the sector's minimum monthly wage to 23,000 taka ($215) from 8,000 taka ($75) now.
About 60% of Bangladesh's 3.6 million apparel workers are women, mostly migrants from poor rural families, and they do not have the education or social power to mobilise for global causes, Amin added.
"I do not know much about the changing climate," said Khaleda Begum, 35, who has been working in garment factories on the outskirts of Dhaka for the last five years after migrating from the flood-prone northern district of Lalmonirhat.
Sharing climate concerns
Among the few workers' bodies that have made an early move into the climate advocacy arena is the Awaj Foundation, a labour rights platform founded by former child worker Nazma Akter.
Ismet Jarin, a project coordinator at Awaj, said it is trying to raise awareness among workers, especially women, about climate change impacts and how to share their concerns and demands on heat and other risks, so that environmental movements and organised labour can see eye-to-eye on common issues.
Urmi Akter, a worker at a garment factory in Gazipur, said she - along with many co-workers - are affected by seasonal rains that sometimes flood their homes, while there is a scarcity of pure drinking water in their neighbourhoods.
"We need to translate what climate change means for labour so they too can share their needs for a just climate transition," said Rahman from Youthnet for Climate Justice.
Mortuza said ULAB's Center for Sustainable Development has been working on a range of ways, including roundtables, to bring together people backing climate action and those affected by warming impacts to discuss how best to tackle the challenges.
"We cannot get everyone's version of the truth through a top-down approach," he said.
The researchers also aim to use interviews and digital media like podcasts to engage a broader audience.
"We want to get the information in bite-sized format to policy-makers and ordinary people to make them understand why and what needs to be done on just transition," he added.
(Reporting by Md. Tahmid Zami; Editing by Megan Rowling)
- Youth climate movement
- Climate inequality
- Future of work
- Workers' rights
- Economic inclusion
- Climate solutions