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In the context of Bangladesh, one can say that the country is not too poorly served by labour laws and their regulations on the employers. Trade union practices providing collective bargaining of workers with their employers are generally allowed in the industries and services here. Labour courts in Bangladesh promote and protect workers’ rights and enforce laws such as compensation to be paid to workers by employers for the breach of labour laws on their part.
Bangladesh is a signatory nation associated to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and remains committed on the whole to ILO policies. However, trade union practices in Bangladesh seem to be in existence in the country’s older industries and services with new ones-particularly the export oriented garments industries-remaining largely unserved by trade unions. But there are also powerful arguments in favour of such exemptions. The garments industries could never have come to their present number or employ the record number of workers as they do, if they were burdened by demands from workers and lost their competitiveness as a result.
The example of the garments industries also demonstrates that it should be a prudent course for eligible workers in this country to first find employment in sectors like the garments industries than to restrict the flourishment of such emerging work opportunities by attempting to introduce trade unions in them too early in the day (The New Nation, 2004). It should be advantageous for workers to put less emphasis first on orthodox trade union practices and accept less regulation on the employers so that they feel encouraged to expand business activities.
This should maximise employment creation which should go in the favour of unemployed workers when unemployment is a huge problem in Bangladesh. More employment and some income should be a better choice for the country’s workforce with its vast number of unemployed than no employment and no income from too much of trade unionism. Thus, there is a need for responsible trade unionism in the country if there exists a genuine interest among workers’ leaders to best advance the longer term interests of their followers. Of course, it is not meant that pressure for better looking after the welfare needs of workers ught not to be there when the new enterprises graduate into stronger entities and, thus, become able to smoothly accommodate reasonable demands from their workers (The New Nation, 2004). Many of the country’s garments industries, for instance, would not lose their competitiveness or experience any major reduction in their profits or the control over their workers by allowing the workers certain basic rights, such as a weekly holiday, casual leave, a bearable increase in their wages and safe conditions of work in the factories (The New Nation, 2004).
From the government’s side, the role expected most is imparting of training and education free of cost to workers. The same should increase their productivity and skills which would be invaluable assets in the work places. Governments in many countries play the desired role of training and educating as many workers as possible and look upon government spending on these areas as long term investment on economic growth. The Government in Bangladesh needs to adopt and pursue vigorously similar policies (The New Nation, 2004). . 2. Trade union rights in law: 2. 2. 1. Many restrictions: The Constitution provides for the right to form or join unions. There are many restrictions, however. Before a union can be registered, 30 per cent of workers in an enterprise have to be members and the union can be dissolved if its membership falls below this level. The ILO has informed the government that this is a clear barrier to freedom of association and recommended the law be amended, but that advice has been continuously ignored.
Unions must have government approval to be registered, and no trade union action can be taken prior to registration. Unions can only be formed at the factory/establishment level, with some exceptions (such as private road transport, private inland river transport, tea, jute bailing, bidi production) where union formation can take place based on geographic area. There can be no more than three registered trade unions in any establishment.
Membership in a union is restricted only to workers currently working at an establishment, meaning that severance from employment also results in the end of a worker’s membership in the union. Candidates for union office have to be current or former employees of an establishment or group of establishments. The Registrar of Trade Unions has wide powers to interfere in internal union affairs. He can enter union premises and inspect documents. The registrar may also cancel the registration of a union, with Labour Court approval (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). . 2. 2. Exclusions from union membership: Under the Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO), workers in the public sector and state enterprises may not belong to a trade union, with the exception of railway, postal and telecommunications workers. Members of the security forces are also denied the right to form unions.
Teachers are also forbidden to form trade unions, in either the public or private sector. Managerial and administrative employees can form welfare associations, but they are denied the right to join a union (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). . 2. 3. Right to strike not recognized: The right to strike is not specifically recognised in law. Three quarters of a union’s members must agree to a strike before it can go ahead. The government can ban any strike if it continues beyond 30 days (in which case it is referred to the Labour Court for adjudication), if it involves a public service covered by the Essential Services Ordinance or if it is considered a threat to the national interest. In this last case, the 1974 Special Powers Act can be used to detain trade unionists without charge.
The government may ban strikes for renewable periods of three months. Sentences of up to 14 years’ forced labour can be passed for offences such as “obstruction of transport”. Strikes are not allowed in new establishments either owned by foreign investors or established as joint-ventures in collaboration with foreign investors for a period of three years from the date the establishment begins commercial production (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 2. 4.
Compulsory conciliation and court referral procedures: The labour law requires that parties to an industrial dispute must follow procedures (such as request conciliation, serve notice of a strike or lock-out, or refer the dispute to the Labour Court for settlement) within a specified period or the labour dispute will be considered legally terminated. The issue or subject of an industrial dispute which is terminated in this manner cannot be raised for a calendar year after such termination (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). . 2. 5. Collective bargaining limited: Only registered unions can engage in collective bargaining, and each union must nominate representatives to a Collective Bargaining Authority committee, which is subject to approval by the Registrar of Trade Unions. The National Pay and Wages Commission, whose recommendations are binding, sets public sector workers’ pay levels and other benefits (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 2. 6.
EPZ Law – significant restrictions continue: The EPZ Trade Union and Industrial Relations Bill 2004 provided for the formation of trade unions in EPZs from 1 November 2006. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association recommended numerous amendments to the law to bring it into compliance with Conventions no. 87 and 98 which Bangladesh has ratified. The government of Bangladesh has fundamentally failed to take any appreciable steps to comply with the ILO CFA’s ruling.
The law foresees the phased introduction of freedom of association, providing for a different type of workers’ organisation at each stage. However, the law does not go so far as to say that trade unions with full associational rights will be allowed to exist in EPZs after the last stage outlined, which will be after 1 November 2008 (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 2. 6. Stage one – worker representation and welfare committees: Until the end of October, workers in Bangladesh’s EPZs were still operating under the first stage of the law.
They were only allowed to set up Worker Representation and Welfare Committees (WRWC). The law requires all enterprises in the EPZ to have one WRWC, whose elected representatives have the power to negotiate and sign collective agreements on a limited set of topics but not to strike or organise demonstrations. However, workers and labour activists in Bangladesh reported that in 2006 employers generally refused to enter negotiations or sign an agreement with a WRWC. Under the law, all WRWCs were supposed to cease to exist on 31 October 2006, unless he employer gave an explicit agreement that the WRWC should continue (which they would in practice only do in the case of compliant WRWCs). (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 2. 7. Stage two – workers’ associations: The second stage of the law provides that a trade union, referred to as a Workers’ Association (WA) in the law, can be organised provided over 30 per cent of the workforce requests that the association should be set up. More than 50 per cent of the workers in the factory must vote affirmatively for the WA to be formed.
This was scheduled to start on 1 November 2006 but in practice there were significantly delays, notably because the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) did not provide the necessary forms for applying to set up WAs. In new enterprises that start operations after 1 November 2006, workers are not permitted to form an association for the first three months after the commencement of commercial activities. Only one federation can be formed per EPZ, and over 50 per cent of the registered WA in the zone must vote to affiliate before a federation can be formed.
The BEPZA Executive Chairman also has almost unlimited authority to deregister a Workers’ Association, should he determine that the WA has committed an “unfair practice”, contravened any part of the WA’s own constitution, violated any aspect of the EPZ Law, or failed to submit a report to him. Essentially, the law has made illegal the right of workers to talk about unions in their workplaces or to engage in pressure tactics to persuade recalcitrant employers to sign a collective agreement.
Finally, the law explicitly forbids any strikes in the EPZs until 31 October 2008. (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 2. 8. Frequent bans on assembly: The law allows the government to ban any public gathering of more than four people, ostensibly only in cases where “public order” or “public health” are at risk. In fact, the government applied this banning power much more indiscriminately. (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 2. 9.
Labour appellate tribunal created: The new labour law created an avenue for all the judgements, awards and sentences of the Labour Court to be appealed to a Labour Appellate Tribunal. Previously all such appeals had to be taken up by the Supreme Court, resulting in significant delays in reaching a final legal verdict for labour cases (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 3. Trade union rights in practice: The trade union movement is relatively weak in Bangladesh.
This is partly owing to the multiplicity of trade unions and partly owing to the considerable intimidation imposed in practice, especially workers’ fear of losing their jobs should they show any sign of union activity. The right to freedom of association and to collective bargaining at the workplace is not respected in the garment sector or on the tea estates. Where unions do file applications for recognition, their registration is often delayed long beyond the 60 days foreseen by law. 2. 3. 1.
Strike bans: The government makes regular use of the Essential Services Ordinance in order to ban strikes. The government’s use of this order was continuously applied over the past four years to the Power Development Board, the Dhaka Electric Supply Authority, the Chittagong Port Authority, Biman Airlines, and the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 3. 2. Restrictions on bargaining and union meetings: Since 2003, the government has banned any collective bargaining in jute mills during production time.
Only pro-government supporters are allowed to hold meetings during work time and unions not affiliated with the government’s labour grouping are not allowed to hold protests even on their day off (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 3. 3. Employers take advantage of legal loopholes: Private sector workers are discouraged from undertaking any union activity. The Industrial Relations Ordinance gives considerable leeway for discrimination against union members and organisers by employers.
Workers who try to create a trade union are not protected before registration and are therefore often persecuted by their employers, sometimes by violent means or with the help of the police. The names of workers who apply for union registration are frequently passed on to employers who promptly transfer or dismiss them, particularly in the textile sector. Even after registration, workers suspected of carrying out trade union activities are regularly harassed. One popular ploy is to dismiss a worker for misconduct, as they are then no longer entitled to become a trade union officer.
A complaint to the Labour Court is of little use given the underlying corruption and serious backlog of cases which, in some instances, can stretch back more than several years (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 3. 4. Export processing zones – anti-union employers: Employers in the EPZs have been consistently hostile towards trade unions, claiming that many of the companies would be ruined and jobs would be lost if they had to have unions.
Some employers in the zones take advantage of the absence of trade unions to commit violations of international labour standards, such as sexual harassment, physical violence, unpaid overtime, child labour, non-compliance with minimum wage regulations and deplorable safety conditions. Despite protections for WRWC committee members provided by the EPZ Law, discrimination against leaders of active WRWCs was reported in 2006, and an undetermined yet significant number of these leaders and activist members have been terminated with permission from the BEPZA in processes that workers claimed were biased and unfair.
Since there is no dispute resolution mechanism or tribunal for workers, except to appeal to the BEPZA, workers in the EPZs had few other options but to protest. After 1 November 2006, those factories with WRWCs turned their attention to frustrating efforts of the workers to form Workers Associations, again employing a series of tactics including harassment, intimidation, and termination of leaders (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 3. 5.
Failure to set up industrial dispute resolution mechanisms in EPZs: Although the EPZ law provides for the establishment of an EPZ Labour Tribunal and an EPZ Labour Appellate Tribunal, a full two years after the passage of the EPZ law, these two tribunals have yet to be established (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 3. 6. Garment industry anti-union: Textile workers outside the zones fare no better. An estimated two million women workers toil for 3,300 employers to make clothes for export in Bangladesh. Workers are regularly sacked, beaten or subjected to false charges by the police for being active in unions.
The General Secretary of the United Federation of Garment Workers (UGFW) has been arrested more than a dozen times. Meanwhile, the country’s garment workers are among the lowest paid in the world. They work long hours with very little leave, and face physical, verbal and sexual abuse (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 3. 7. Employer negligence and government indifference kills hundreds of workers: Negligence by employers and the authorities have had appalling consequences that a strong, vigilant trade union could help to avoid.
Based on its analysis of publicly available sources, the respected Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies found that in 2006 there were 845 workers killed and 3018 injured by occupational accidents. The ready-made garment sector led the way in its toll on workers, with 141 killed, and 1578 hurt or maimed (Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union: Bangladesh, 2007). 2. 3. 8. Ship recycling industry effectively prohibits unions: The Bangladeshi ship recycling industry is based at Chittagong Port. Workers are employed on an as-needs basis, have no contracts and do not sign any documents which could link them to a specific yard.
Thus workers have no legal recourse in the event of a dispute. Largely owing to the fear instilled in them – through violence and the precariousness of their employment situation – workers have no way of standing up for their rights or even claiming their dues. Any claim would provoke instant dismissal. Unions are de facto forbidden on the sites and union organisers find it very difficult to gain access.