Some Improvements, But Workers Rights Still at Serious Risk
July 15, 2013
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. 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.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director

(New York) – Amendments to Bangladesh’s labor law make some improvements but still fall far short of protecting worker’s rights and meeting international standards, Human Rights Watch said today. Bangladesh’s donors and international investors should press the government to make further amendments to the law to fully ensure workers’ rights to form unions, bargain collectively, and participate in workplace decisions on safety.

Under domestic and international pressure, on July 15, 2013, the Bangladeshi parliament enacted changes to the Labor Act. The impetus for a reformed labor rights law sprang from the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in greater Dhaka in April, which killed more than 1,100 garment factory workers. The Rana Plaza tragedy followed many other workplace tragedies that resulted in large loss of life.

“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, 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.”

Bangladesh has ratified most of the core International Labour Organization labor standards, including Convention No. 87 on freedom of association and Convention No. 98 on the right to organize and bargain collectively. However, important sections of the Labor Act still do not meet those standards.
The new amendments deal with only some problematic provisions of the existing law, while leaving others untouched. For example:

  • At least 30 percent of the workers in an establishment, which can comprise many factories, would still have to join a union for the government to register it.
  • Unions will be allowed to select their leaders only from workers at the establishment. This will enable employers to force out union leaders by firing them for an ostensibly non-union-related reason, a common practice globally. Workers in export processing zones, which cover a large percentage of Bangladesh’s work force, would remain legally unable to form trade unions.
  • The amended law adds more sectors, including non-profit education and training facilities, as well as “hospitals, clinics and diagnostic centers,” to a lengthy list of types of employment in which workers are not permitted to form unions.  
  • The right to strike will remain burdened by a cumbersome bureaucratic process and the requirement that two-thirds of the union’s membership would have to vote for a strike, a small improvement over the previous requirement of three-quarters of the membership.
  • The government will be able to stop a strike if it decides it would cause “serious hardship to the community” or is “prejudicial to the national interest,” terms that are not defined but can easily be misused.
  • Discriminatory anti-strike provisions in the law favor foreign investors by prohibiting strikes in any establishment during the first three years of operation if it is “owned by foreigners or is established in collaboration with foreigners.”
  • The amended law also seeks to redirect attention to so-called “Participation Committees” and “Safety Committees,” largely powerless bodies made up of management and workers. Workers at non-union workplaces would directly elect their representatives to Participation Committees and Safety Committees, which would be created in factories with more than 50 workers. However, the role of these committees is not clearly defined. Both types of committees fulfill duties that should be handled by a union acting as the duly organized and elected representative of the workers.   

“The government has not only missed a golden opportunity to get rid of provisions that limit workers’ rights, it has even snuck into the law new and harmful regulations,” Robertson said. “Even after Rana Plaza, the government still is not fully committed to the protection of workers’ rights and safety.”

The revised Labor Act could also have a major negative impact on unions by expanding government control over unions’ access to foreign funding. The law would require prior approval from the Labor and Employment Ministry before either trade unions or employer organizations could receive “technical, technological, health & safety and financial support” from international sources. 

“By controlling access to foreign funding, the government would have a stranglehold over assistance to unions, just as it has with devastating effect over other nongovernmental groups,” Robertson said. “Donor countries should reject this unjustified government interference with worker and employer groups.”

The law contains important provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sex and disability, including equal wages for equal work. However, the revised law includes no measures to tackle sexual harassment of women, who make up the vast majority of workers in the ready-made garment sector, Human Rights Watch said. In offering amendments to the labor law, the government has missed an important opportunity to carry out 2009 High Court guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace.

A major test of the government’s commitment will be implementation of provisions that protect worker safety and the rights to organize and collective bargaining. The ruling Awami League is backed by factory owners and has many members of parliament who own factories.

The government has failed to develop specific regulatory rules to carry out various provisions of the previous law, adopted in 2006, raising concerns about its willingness to implement new measures. For instance, the government has failed to carry out adequate factory inspections. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimated in 2008 that the country had as few as 80 inspectors. The Bangladesh government, European Union, and International Labour Organization recognized this problem in a memorandum of understanding signed on July 8, 2012, which called for recruiting an additional 200 inspectors before the end of 2013. It set a long-term goal of “upgrading the Department of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Establishments to a Directorate with a strength of 800 inspectors, having an adequate annual budget allocation, and the development of the infrastructure required for its proper functioning.” 

“The positive provisions in the new labor law demand a serious commitment to enforcing them,” Robertson said. “International companies sourcing from Bangladesh should press the government to recognize that empowered workers and unions are one of the best ways to ensure that reforms are actually made. If strong unions had been allowed when cracks first appeared at Rana Plaza, workers wouldn’t have been bullied into going to work the next day and then being killed when the building collapsed.”

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