Udatta Bikash

The ready-made garment (RMG) industry in Bangladesh is at a door step of possibility. The annual foreign exchange earnings from the sector is now stands at US$ 28 Billion. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has set the target of the same to be as US$ 50 Billion in 2021.

The achievement of this target is heavily depending on issues like improvements in productivity, diversity and value-addition to products, peaceful industrial relations etc.

Along with there are issues which include developing infrastructure including elevation of Dhaka-Chittagong Highway, improved capacity in handling goods at the Chittagong ports, uninterrupted supply of gas and electricity, introduction of good governance in labour administration and labour inspection etc. Further to those there are urgency for effective applications of the labour laws and enforcement of labour rights.

Following the tragedy of the collapse of Rana Plaza building, labour rights issues in the country, especially those of the RMG sector, have come to the limelight.

Despite of continuous and significant technical supports from the International Labour Organization (ILO) for promotion of labour rights and corresponding right to collective bargaining, how far progresses are made that would be questions of the time now. The matter has come to forefront again following the alleged intimidation and harassments on workers and trade union activists involved in the movement at Ashulia areas during December last in demand of increase in minimum wages among others.

However, the issue of the realization and promotion of labour rights are not related to the RMG sector only, rather those are for across the industries in the country.

In this connection, the Committee on the Applications of the Standards (CAS), and the Committee of Experts on the Applications of the Conventions and Recommendations, independent bodies linked to world of works in their latest observations (of 2016) have put forward four issues importantly for Bangladesh: (1) Amendments as necessary to existing labour acts (including what was done in 2013) which would ensure workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, (2) Bringing  complete changes in the EPZ laws which would ensure full exercise of workers’ rights to freedom of association, including getting association with workers organizations outside of the EPZs, (3) Immediate investigations of cases related to anti-union discrimination and reinstatement of workers who have been lost their jobs illegally and penalty for the perpetrators, and (4) Streamline and simplify the trade union registration processes.

The Committee of Experts has identified few issues which are held responsible as obstacles for realization of labour rights in Bangladesh; those include- reluctance from employers for acknowledging and recognition of workers’ rights, weakness in the existing labour laws and non-implementation of the existing ones, mandatory requirements of 30% supports of membership (workers) for formation and registration of  a trade union, complex bureaucratic process for registration of trade unions and wide discretionary power for the officials concerned, continuous intimidations and harassment against officials of the trade unions which got registered.

At the same time, there have been limitations and challenges from the workers-sides as well. Those include- low literacy rates among workers, lack of awareness on general workers’ rights and corresponding responsibilities, non-interest for trade unions contributed by lack of awareness in general, proliferation and multiplicity in the national level trade union movements and  politicization thereof, and absence of practices of democratic norms in a section of trade union movement itself.

Those challenges are contributed by political-nexus and practices of opportunism opposed to promotion of actual labour rights. It has been apparent over the years that there is absence of democratic practices and norms in changes of leadership of national-level trade union organizations (national of sectoral federations). This would be easily visible if one looks into who have been in the two top positions of those organizations, e.g., Chairperson of General Secretary, in the last decade or so. The technical and financial supports of various development agencies including the ILO have been resorted to failing severally in promoting democratic practices and governance thereof due to absence proper strategy on the local context.

Like last few years, the situation of labour rights in Bangladesh has been heavily drawn in the last International Labour Conference (ILC) held over May-June 2016 in Geneva. From the publicly available reports, it was found that the lack of political commitment from the side of the government, among others, has been hold responsible for not having significant progress in matters of promotion of labour rights in Bangladesh.

Although it has been tabled from the government that it was duty-bound to ensure labour rights and promotion of the international labour standards in the country in light of the respective ILO Conventions. However, time has come to see the same not on the paper only but in reality as well.#

Udatta Bikash is a Lawyer and Analyst specialized in Labour Laws and Industrial Relations. He can be contacted at udatta.bikash@gmail.com

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