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New Bangladesh labor law disappoints rights groups

Activist says it does not meet international standards

New Bangladesh labor law disappoints rights groups

Critics of the new law say it does not do enough to protect worker rights (Chandan Robert Rebeiro) reporter, Dhaka

July 17, 2013

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The Bangladeshi government has responded to intense domestic and international pressure to improve working conditions in garment factories by amending its labor law, but critics charge that the new rules do little protect the rights of workers.

The Labor (Amendment) Act 2013 was passed in parliament on Monday, three weeks after the US suspended Bangladesh’s trade privileges in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April, and the Tazreen Fashion fire in November. The two incidents together killed nearly 1,300 workers. Trade privileges are also under threat in the European Union, the single largest apparel market.

The new law encompasses workers in all industries, including garment factories, shipbreaking yards, and the hospital and agricultural sectors. It provisions stricter rules for structural design and safety standards in factories, allows workers the right to unionize without approval from factory owners, and offers mandatory insurance and compensation for sick leave. It also gives workers the right to bargain with owners over their demands. 

“This law fulfills long standing demands from workers. We hope it will help us get back trade privileges in the US,” said Labor and Employment Minister Rajiuddin Ahmed. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the main trade body, described it as “a win-win situation.” 

But the response from workers’ groups has been more lukewarm.

“According to law at least 30 percent of workers willing to form a trade union can get approval from the Labor Ministry without notifying the owners,” said Babul Akhter, President of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation. “In a country where corruption is widespread, officials might give the list to owners for bribes and they might be fired from the factory.

“If owners don’t come to terms with workers over an issue within two weeks, they must go to the government,” he continued. “Then it will be sent to a labor court for arbitration and it might take months to resolve." He said it's unlikely the workers could afford the time off work to go to court.

In a statement yesterday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also said the law fails to protect workers’ rights.

“The Bangladesh government desperately wants to move the spotlight away from the Rana Plaza disaster, so it’s not surprising it is now trying to show that it belatedly cares about workers’ rights,” said Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director.

“This would be good news if the new law fully met international standards, but the sad reality is that the government has consciously limited basic workers’ rights while exposing workers to continued risks and exploitation.”

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