Bangladesh stitches together labor law changes

Govt is proposing amendments to make it easier to form trade unions in industries such as garment manufacturing
Bangladesh stitches together labor law changes

Garment workers at a factory in Dhaka on March 6. Bangladesh's garment industry, which has been criticized for weak worker protection, is the country's biggest employer with four million people.  (ucanews.com photo)

 

Under intense pressure at home and abroad, the Bangladesh government is considering amending its existing labor law to allow workers to more easily form trade unions.

The move was tentatively welcomed by the garment industry and a church official, however, labor groups remained skeptical.

Under Bangladesh's labor law, 30 percent of workers in a factory have to agree on the formation of a union which is subject to a strict registration procedures. The government also has vaguely defined powers to cancel a union’s registration, according to Human Rights Watch.

A senior government official said plans to amend the labor law are in the initial stage.

"We are preparing a draft in consultation with various groups and we will send it to the International Labor Organization (ILO) for review. Then the final push will be made for amendments, and we are sincere about prioritizing the interests of workers," Khurshidul Haque, a joint director at the Department of Labor told ucanews.com.

He said the government would decrease the 30 percent requirement to form a trade union, but he would not specify the exact percent. He also declined to mention a deadline for the introduction of the amendments.

"We are determined to make it easy for workers in all industries to form trade union and have fair labor practices," he said.

Theophil Nokrek, secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, cautiously hailed the move.

"Here, trade unions fail to serve the interests of workers as factory owners try to control them to reap maximum profits and the government looks aside. For some time, the European Union and the ILO have pushed the government for changes and it's good to see things are moving in the right direction," said Nokrek.

"In most cases, factory owners exploit trade unions and workers to satisfy their greed and it's not going to change soon. Workers have been crying out for too long, but the move shows even though the owners and the government can defy workers, it's impossible to ignore outside pressure," he added.

Babul Akhter, president of Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation, said easing of trade union formation is not enough.

"There are about 600 trade unions but about 30-40 have the capacity to engage in collective bargaining with factory owners over workers' rights. Most of them are weak because the owners don't allow them to be strong and vocal. Just easing up trade union formation won't help workers, so the whole system of exploitative practices must be changed," said Akhter.

Moenuddin Ahmed, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the country's most powerful and politically influential trade body, said he is "enthusiastic" about the labor law changes.

"We have taken action against factories that don't treat workers well. But it is also a fact that some trade unions pose threats as they try to exploit owners," Ahmed told ucanews.com.

Ahmed said there was a major meeting with representatives from the government, European Union, ILO and BGMEA at which the labor law amendment was discussed. 

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Bangladesh’s US$25 billion, export-oriented garment industry is the world’s second largest after China's. The industry generates about 80% of the country's annual foreign exchange income and is the largest industry employer, with some four million workers.

However, the industry has been plagued by poor labor practices and appalling working conditions leading to dozens of fires and building collapses.

In 2013, Rana Plaza collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers, sparking a global outcry and bringing the industry  under intense outside scrutiny.

Three months after the Rana Plaza collapse, the US suspended Bangladesh’s Generalized System of Preference (GSP) status, a trade privilege for poor nations for duty-free trade access to the US market.

The European Union, where 60 percent of Bangladeshi garment products are exported to, also threatened to suspend GSP for Bangladesh if the industry didn’t push for reform. 

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