The ITUC affiliates in Bangladesh are the Bangladesh Free Trade Union Congress (BFTUC), the Bangladesh Jatyatabadi Sramik Dal (BJSD), the Bangladesh Labour Federation (BLF), the Bangladesh Mukto Sramik Federation (BMSF), the Bangladesh Sanjukta Sramik Federation (BSSF) and the Jatio Sramik League (JSL).
On 24 April 2013, at least 1,129 workers were killed when the eight-story Rana Plaza building complex in the Dhaka suburb of Savar collapsed. The complex housed five garment factories employing as many as 5,000 workers. This includes the New Wave factory, which supplies clothes to major global retailers such as Mango, Primark and Canadian supermarket chain Loblaws. Ether Tex Ltd, which supplies garments for buyers such as Walmart and C&A, was also housed in the complex, as was Phantom TAC, a joint venture knit factory with a Spanish textile company which boasted on its website of its “unique Social Transparency Tag” assuring the “high standards of working conditions in the factory”. The building also housed a bank and several shops. At the time of the collapse, 2,000 people were said to have been on the upper floors of the building.
On 24 November 2012, a fire erupted at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd factory, which claimed the lives of over 100 workers. This fire follows the recent garment factory fires in Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan, in September which claimed over 300 lives. The cause of the recent fires is suspected to be faulty wiring, often caused by using cheap and un-insulated wiring which overheats and causes these catastrophes. To keep costs as low as possible (and profits as high), Bangladeshi garment factories often cut major corners on health and safety.
The anti-union stance of the industry as a whole has also foreclosed any opportunity to resolve critical industrial relations issues such as health and safety through dialogue and collective negotiation. Instead, the industry, with the support of the government, is fighting to keep the industry union free – promoting participation committees, which have no power to bargain over the terms and conditions of their employment, and which are frequently dominated by management’s hand-picked representatives from among the workers, in place of unions.
Currently, there is an ILO-led process under way to reform the Labour Act of 2006 in relation to a handful of priority issues. The proposals include amendments on the minimum membership requirement of 30 per cent, the disclosure of names of union founders to the employer, and setting the number of union officers who may not be employed in the enterprise. Comments have been submitted by employers and workers to the Ministry of Labour, following numerous tripartite dialogue sessions facilitated by the ILO. Furthermore, as the Parliament is dominated by garment factory owners, there is further concern that even if the proposals were acceptable, the Parliament could nevertheless amend them to suit the interests of the garment industry.
Freedom of association / Right to organise
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Barriers to the establishment of organisations:
- 'Prior authorisation or approval by authorities required for the establishment of a union'
- Unions must have government approval to be registered, and no trade union action can be taken prior to registration.
- Excessive representativity or minimum number of members required for the establishment of a union
- Before a union can be registered, 30% of workers in an enterprise have to be members, and the union can be dissolved if its membership falls below this level.
Restrictions on workers' right to form and join organisations of their own choosing:
- Undue or excessive privileges granted to certain organisations (such as privileges going beyond that of priority in representation for such purposes as collective bargaining or consultation by governments, or for the purpose of nominating delegates to int
- Unions can only be formed at the factory/establishment level, however in some exceptional cases (such as private road transport, private inland river transport, tea, jute bailing and bidi production) unions can be based on a geographical area. There can be no more than three registered trade unions in any establishment.
Restrictions on trade unions' right to organise their administration:
- Restrictions on the right to elect representatives and self-administer in full freedom
- Candidates for union office have to be current or former employees of an establishment or group of establishments. The Registrar of Trade Unions has wide powers to interfere in internal union affairs.
- Administrative authorities' power to unilaterally dissolve, suspend or de-register trade union organisations
- The Registrar of Trade Unions may cancel the registration of a union with Labour Court approval.
Categories of workers prohibited or limited from forming or joining a union, or from holding a union office:
- Managerial and supervisory staff
- Managerial staff and employees who are designated by employers as "confidential" are prevented from joining unions.
- Export processing zone (EPZ) workers
- The EPZ Workers Association and Industrial Relations Act (2004) provided for the formation of trade unions in EPZs. After an initial stage - which ended on 31 October 2006 - where workers were only allowed to set up Worker Representation and Welfare Committees (WRWC), the second stage would, if enacted, have allowed the workers to transform their WRWCs into trade unions, referred to as Workers’ Associations in the law. However, the Act was amended in 2009, and the term “Workers’ Association” wa+E126s replaced by “Workers’ Welfare Organisation”, meaning the right to form trade unions in EPZs remains far off.
- Other civil servants and public employees
- Under the Bangladesh Labour Act (BLA) of 2006 government workers and workers employed in offices under government authority are prohibited from belonging to a trade union with the exception of railway, postal, telecommunications, public works, public health engineering and government printing press workers. Firefighters are denied the right to form unions. On the positive side, new categories of workers, including teachers and NGO workers, are permitted under the BLA to form unions.
- Armed forces
- Security forces are denied the right to form unions.
- Others categories
- Membership of a union is restricted only to workers currently working at an establishment, meaning that loss of employment also results in the end of a worker's membership of the union. The law further provides that even if the worker contests the termination, union membership is only returned when the worker is actually reinstated, which can take years given the slowness of Bangladesh's courts. On 5 November 2009, the Bangladesh Labour Act was amended to limit trade union activities at the Chittagong and Mongla ports. Pursuant to the new Act, each port can only have one trade union, which must be set up within six months of the day of enactment of the amendment. All existing trade union bodies will be dissolved. Only workers that have completed one year’s service can be registered as members of these trade unions.
Right to strike
Barriers to lawful strike actions:
- Obligation to observe an excessive quorum or to obtain an excessive majority in a ballot to call a strike
- Three quarters of a union's members must agree to a strike before it can go ahead.
- Other undue, unreasonable or unjustified prerequisites
- The labour law requires that parties to an industrial dispute must initiate legal proceedings (request conciliation, give notice of a strike or lockout, or refer the dispute to the Labour Court for settlement) within a specific timeframe or the authorities will consider the dispute to be terminated. Section 212 of the Bangladesh Labour Act prohibits the parties from raising the specific issue or subject again for one year after the issuing of a termination order.
Ban or limitations on certain types of strike actions:
- Restrictions with respect to the level or scope of a strike (e.g. (enterprise, industry and/or sector, regional and/or territorial, national)
- At the company level, strikes are not allowed in new establishments for three years from the date they begin commercial operations, where the factory is newly built, owned by foreign investors or established with foreign aid.
Undue interference by authorities or employers during the course of a strike:
- Authorities' or employers''' power to unilaterally prohibit, limit, suspend or cease a strike action
- The government can ban any strike if it continues beyond 30 days (in which case it is referred to the Labour Court for adjudication), if it involves a public service covered by the Essential Services Ordinance or if it is considered a threat to the national interest. The government may ban strikes for renewable periods of three months.
Undermining of the recourse to strike actions or their effectiveness:
- Excessive civil or penal sanctions for workers and unions involved in non-authorised strike actions
- If a strike is considered a threat to the national interest, the 1974 Special Powers Act can be used to detain trade unionists without charge. Sentences of up to 14 years' forced labour can be passed for offences such as "obstruction of transport".
Limitations or ban on strikes in certain sectors:
- Other limitations (e.g. in EPZs)
- The ban on strikes or lockouts in the EPZs was due to expire on 31 October 2008. However the rules allowed the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority to extend it until 31 October 2010.
In November 2013, the Minimum Wage Board announced a 77 per cent increase in minimum wages. This would result in a monthly salary of 5,300 taka (USD 68) for workers. However, employers argued they would not be able to implement this decision. On 11 November 2013, workers protested against employers’ refusal to pay higher minimum wages and the rate announced by Minimum Wage Board, still the lowest in the world for textile workers. Police fired water cannon and rubber bullets to break protests injuring more than 50 people. About 250 factories were shut down in the Ashulia industrial zone on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka.
On 13 May 2012, workers employed at the Ha-Meem Group protested about management violence against workers. Police intervened in the demonstrations which led to the injury of at least 100 workers.
At least 100 garment, knitting and packaging factories in Ashulia were shut for a day on 11 June 2012 after hundreds of workers of Artistic Design, a packaging factory in the Ha-Meem Group located in Narasinghapur, staged a demonstration demanding a pay rise. Thousands of workers from garment factories along the highway stretching from Narasinghapur to Banglabazar joined the demonstration. The police attacked the workers with batons to free the road leaving 10 people injured.
In July 2012, three workers who had participated in demonstrations demanding pay rises were shot by the security forces.
On 16 September 2012, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at tens of thousands of garment workers who were demonstrating in a key industrial area outside Dhaka, demanding a reduction in working hours. Two policemen and about 50 workers were injured during the clashes.
On 12 February 2012, the President and the General Secretary of the Coats Bangladesh Ltd. Employees Union (CBLEU) attempted to enter negotiations regarding an industrial dispute at the Tejgaon Industrial Area in Dhaka. Management confiscated their mobile phones and forcibly detained them over night.
On 30 January 2012, at least 40 workers were attacked and injured by company security guards from Rashida Knitting and Ware Limited and Megha Textile Ltd in the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone when they protested against dismissals without prior notice and non-payment of annual leave.
Police opened fire on workers who protested near the former Rana Plaza factory for fairer wages and outstanding salary payments which had been promised previously by the government and the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Local media reported that 50 people were injured by police. The death toll from the Rana Plaza disaster reportedly now stands at 1,130.
Workers at Rosita Knitwears (Pvt.) Ltd. and M/S Megatex Knitters (Pvt.) Ltd. Companies in Ishwardi EPZ began demonstrations on January 30, 2012 regarding serious violations of workers’ rights, including sexual harassment of a female worker and several discrepancies over annual raises and leave. As a result of the unrest, 291 workers, including the presidents of WWAs of Rosita and Megatex, were dismissed. In negotiation with the international buyers and the South Ocean Group (the owner), Rosita and Megatex agreed to reinstate WWA leaders Helal (Rosita) and Belal (Megatex) and the other 289 workers and sought BEPZA’s approval to remove them from an EPZ “blacklist”. However, BEPZA refused to give permission to reinstate the workers on the grounds that there is no prior practice, nor are there provisions in BEPZA rules and regulations to allow for the reinstatement of a dismissed worker in his former jobs. Of course, there are no provisions (nor should there be) prohibiting the reinstatement of workers in law or regulation. Furthermore, there is precedent for reinstatement.
In July 2012, two workers, Mintu Hossain and Rokibul Islam (the latter a union leader) were murdered and 35 wounded by government-provided security guards at the Akij Bidi Factory in Daulatpur Upazila. From available information, the guards opened fire on a crowd of over 3.000 workers had who staged a demonstration at the factory gates in an attempt to recover unpaid wages and to seek a pay rise. The plant manager, Khurshid Alam, gave the order to open fire on the workers. While he has already been arrested, the status of his case remains unknown.
Aminul Islam, an organiser at the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, was found dead in April 2012. In 2010, he had been arrested and tortured by police and intelligence services. From the information available, it appears that Mr Islam was not the victim of random violence but rather targeted for his trade union work. His murder was no doubt meant to send a clear message to trade unions and NGOs not to protest against the low wages, gruelling hours and poor working conditions that characterise the RMG industry. Some suspects have been interrogated, but as yet no one has been arrested, much less prosecuted. It is believed that members of the intelligence service are involved in his murder. Most troubling, Bangladesh PM Sheik Hassina, appearing on the BBC, cast doubt on the fact that Aminul Islam was ever a labour activist and further claimed that no one had ever heard of him before his murder.