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Bangladesh: Garment industry and labour rights

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

Bangladesh firm to ensure RMG compliance- PM tells World Economic Forum workshop in Davos

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addressing the opening plenary session of the World Economic Forum at the Congress Hall in Davos, Switzerland, yesterday. Photo: PID

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday said her government was highly committed to ensuring compliance with regard to the readymade garment (RMG) industry.

“The contribution of the apparel and textile industry to our economy is immense. We are highly committed to ensure compliance with regard to labour rights, workplace safety and environmental standard in the industry,” she said.

The PM was replying to questions at a workshop titled “Shaping a New Water Economy” at the 47th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum at Congress Centre here.

Hasina said Bangladesh’s RMG industry achieved higher compliance standards in terms of wages, workplace safety, norms, practices and harmonious industrial relations.

“There has been a 77 percent increase in basic wage.

Assessment of all the 3,780 factories as recommended by global brands and retailers has been completed,” she added.

Andrew Steer, president and CEO of World Research Institute, moderated the workshop attended by heads of state and government of different countries.

The PM said Bangladesh is the second largest apparel and textile exporting country in the world. The sector employs 4.5 million workers, of which 80 percent are women. The industry accounts for 83 percent of the country’s total exports.

“We are supporting the industry to ‘go green’. Today, Bangladesh has 38 LEED certified factories. Out of the world’s top 10 green factories, seven are in Bangladesh,” she pointed out.

The premier said since 2015, the Bangladesh government has been working with 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG) to achieve 100 percent wastewater treatment and increase water use efficiency as per international benchmarks in the country’s apparel sector.

BSS, Davos, Switzerland

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, 18 January 2017

 

Legal analysis: Who is a worker?

At a recent conference in Dhaka a panel had been organized on the human resources management and applications of employment and labour laws. One from the participants came up with a question- whether an executive is a worker?
The questioner was reportedly from a senior manager working for a big establishment employing thousands of employees and workers.
Given the ‘sensitivity’ of answering such questions ‘in public,’ the panelist (including three lawyers among the six) seemingly decided to remain reluctant in responding to the question and remained between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. That made the question unaddressed indeed.
The Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 (with amendment in 2013) (BLA thereafter) provides a general definition for a worker. According to section 2(65)- a worker would include any person including an apprentice employed in an establishment or industry and doing any kind of skilled, unskilled, manual, technical, trade promotion or clerical works; however, the work has to be done for a wage or reward. The conditions of the employment could be expressed or implied. Again, a worker could be employed directly by the employer concerned or through a contractor.
However, any person employed mainly in a managerial, administrative or supervisory capacity would not be a worker, as per the BLA.
For the purposes of any proceeding in connection to industrial relations (under chapter XIII of the BLA), a worker would also include a person who has been laid off, retrenched, discharged, dismissed or otherwise removed from his her employment in connection with or as a consequence of such a dispute.
These are general definitions of workers, however, it could hardly and should be generalized. Whether someone is a worker or not it depends on the job descriptions concerned and particular works he or she is mainly performing.
Who is a worker?
Along with the statutory definitions case laws have set criteria for determination of who would be a worker- which heavily emphasis not on the mere designation of the person involved, rather, on the very nature of works of the individual concerned. Also, the extent of the authority of the individual is to be taken into consideration for determining whether someone will be a worker or not.
The case laws suggest that to be a worker (or workman in Indian context), one has to satisfy following conditions- shall be a person employed in an industry for hire or reward, and be engaged in skilled or unskilled manual, supervisory, technical or clerical work.
From the legal point of view, designation is not the only criteria for determination of whether an individual would be a worker or not. It is always what are the primary duties of the person concerned in a given context [Lloyds Bank Ltd., New Delhi vs. Panna Lal Gupta, AIR 1967 SC 428: (1961) I LLJ 18]. It has to be considered from case to case basis.
In a case, Managing Director, Contiforms Forms Limited vs Labour Appellate Tribunal, Dhaka [50 DLR (1998) 476 (482), the Respondent No. 3 was a Sales Assistant and was transferred as a Production Manager, and subsequently was again transferred to the head office (of the company) as a Sales Assistant. The Honourable High Court Division, of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, in agreement with the decision of the Labour Appellate Tribunal, had confirmed that the Respondent would be a worker. Here the designation was not taken into consideration, rather works performed by the individual were taken into consideration.
In the case, Mehdi Hassan vs. Bangladesh [19 BLC (2014) 472 (488) (para 50) it was held that a person does not cease to be a worker only because of being employed in a supervisory capacity. The considering elements would be whether functions exercised by such a person are mainly of managerial or administrative in nature or not.
Take away
The Bangladesh Labour Rules, 2015 has top up a definition of “Supervisory Officer” [Rule 2(g)] which reads:
“Supervising officer” means any person who has been authorized in writing by the employer or management, who shall, for the sake of such power, determine the target of any work or service, control the workload, control the implementation activities, evaluate or review the work, give instruction or supervise to the workers of any section of the factory or establishment.
There is fear among the trade union movements that introduction of such a definition would contribute to ‘exclude’ a good number of employees from the spectrum of workers.
The attempted trend is phenomenon while it has been seen that the security guards (who are responsible for security screening at entrance) at the hospitals of a renowned group of companies (at Panthapath area in Dhaka) are designated as “Client Relations Associates”!
Allegedly there are misconceptions that if someone is not covered within the definition of a worker then he or she would not be able to enjoy rights to freedom of association including joining a trade union and collective bargaining thereof.
However, case laws suggest the opposite- mere designation of employed persons are not determining factors whether someone would be fallen within the definition and parameter of workers or not.
The definition of the same would not be a qualifying element to brand someone as a worker or not. Rather the determining elements would be what the primary duties of the individual concerned are.
Let us look into another case law [Indo Pak Corporation vs. Chairman, Labour Court, 21 DLR (1969) 285 (286) (para 6)]:
The main job of the Respondent was to maintain accounting in the head office, and occasionally he was made by the authority to sign cheques jointly with the manager concerned. From the appointment letter it was clear that he was not appointed to either as an administrative officer or to a managerial office to an office which can be said to be a supervisory in nature.
The Court held that merely signing of cheques (by the respondent) along with a manager, under the orders of the authority if and when necessary, would not give him the status of either of an administrative manager or of a manager of an office with supervisory powers.
So, given the above-mentioned discussions, whether an executive would be a worker or not it needs to be taken into consideration his/her main duties performed during a given period of time. Also, it can’t and should not be generalized, rather it has to be seen from case to case basis, and be taken into consideration given the job description concerned and the spectrum of actual duties only performed by the individual.
Even being employed in a supervisory capacity, an individual could be a worker (or does not cease to be a worker), unless functions exercised by such a person are mainly of managerial and administrative nature. [Mehdi Hasan vs Bangladesh, 19 BLC (2014) 472(488).]
Hence, while someone would a worker or not in a given context that should not be concluded merely based on an individual perception, whim, and vested interest thereof, rather it should be evaluated on a case to case basis and taking into consideration the related contexts and legal and judicial points of view.
Analyzed and contributed by the Legal Practitioners specializing on the labour laws of Bangladesh and industrial relations. Contact for further query and comments: thelawyersbd@gmail.com