Bangladesh’s commitments to promoting workers’ rights devolve from its ratification of several international treaties, the Constitution and national laws. However, the application of these laws has been poor and the State’s investment policies have derogated in many cases from workers’ rights.
Bangladesh, with a population of 128.1 million people, has a large and cheap labor force of around 60 million, comprised of 40 million agricultural jobs (growing at one percent a year) and 20 million non-agricultural jobs (growing at six percent a year). Industrial jobs are mainly fall under non- agricultural jobs. All employers are expected to carry out the government’s labor laws, which specify employment conditions, working hours, wage levels, leave policies, health and sanitary conditions, and compensation for injured workers. Freedom of association and the right to join unions is guaranteed in the Bangladesh Constitution. The right to form a union, subject to government approval, is also guaranteed. However, unions are not yet permitted to form in the export processing zones. Approximately 3.5% of Bangladesh’s work force is unionized. Labor unions remain strongest in the jute, textile, and transportation sectors. However, growing fears were expressed that labor unionism may now be growing in the export processing zones, despite the theoretical bans mentioned above. In Bangladesh the labor laws are very specific but these laws are not up to date. The Bangladesh Government has not established enough development toward protecting basic worker rights in Bangladesh, including the important rights of free expression and freedom of association, or strengthening overall access to rule of law for workers and civil society activists. Workers of Bangladesh face hazardous working conditions and an awful minimum wage even if it has increased recently which fails to cover the most basic cost of living. Moreover, minimum wage laws and other labor rights protections face serious systematic lack of enforcement. The main reason behind the lack of enforcement of labor law is ignorance of employer and worker as well as the government’s unawareness. So unhealthy work environment, low wages, discrimination, child labor and many illegal practices in the workplace are very common in Bangladesh which are overlooked by the legal authority.
Current situation of labor rights in Bangladesh
Bangladesh offers a substantial manpower skilled, unskilled, educated and otherwise. There is a good supply of relatively low cost labor in the country. Many of them have a working knowledge of English language and possess the basic skills required by industries. Of late, there is an increasing supply of professionals, technologists and other middle and low-level skilled workers. They receive technical training from universities, colleges, technical training centers, polytechnic institutions etc. The high end workers generally end up with very good remuneration but all the problems arise with the lower end workers, generally who related with the production process. Mainly the lower end workers face with all the hazardous jobs in hazardous environment. Workers in the apparel sector, Bangladesh’s largest export sector, face endemic occupational health and safety hazards. In one notorious case in 2010, 21 garment workers suffocated in an apparel factory fire in Dhaka after escape routes were deliberately locked. Several international bodies and organizations have expressed serious concern regarding the miserable state of workers’ rights in Bangladesh. USAID describes the situation as follows, “Labor rights are commonly ignored by the private sector, particularly for the most vulnerable workers such as women and children.” The US State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Report on Bangladesh further stated, “Because of high unemployment rates and inadequate enforcement of laws, workers demanding redress of dangerous working conditions or who refused to work under hazardous conditions risked losing their jobs.” The International Labor Organization, (ILO) estimates that every year in Bangladesh, “11,700 workers suffer fatal accidents and a further 24,500 die from work related diseases across all sectors.”
Bangladesh ratified the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights in 1998, with reservations placed on Articles 1,2,3,7 and 8.  The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, 1998 (86 th session) is also relevant. Bangladesh has ratified ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, 1948, ILO Convention 105, on the Abolition of Forced Labour, 1957 and ILO Convention 182, on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999. It has signed but not yet ratified the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families in 1990.
The Fundamental Principles of the State policy provided for in the Constitution relating to workers are to be found in:
- Article 14, which requires the State to emancipate peasants and workers from all forms of exploitation;
- Article 15, which holds the State responsible to ensure the right to work, that is the right to guaranteed employment at a reasonable wage having regard to the quantity and quality of work, and reasonable rest, recreation and leisure;
- Article 20(1), which recognises work as a right and requires that, “everyone shall be paid for work on the basis of the principle from each according to his abilities, to each according to his work.”
In addition, the fundamental rights guaranteed in Chapter III, specially relevant to workers’ rights, include:
- Article 34, which prohibits all forms of forced labour and makes it a punishable offence; and
- Article 38, which guarantees the right to freedom of association and to form trade unions.
The Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 adopted by Parliament replaced earlier legislation, including the Factories Act, 1965 and the Factories Rules, 1979, which had established a framework for safeguarding workers’ rights and decent conditions of work in industrial establishments. The new Act codified 25 labour laws and reaffirmed the rights of workers to:
- Proper wages and benefits that ensure an adequate standard of living for workers and their families;
- Equal pay for equal work and non-discrimination;
- Regulated time of work and prohibition on forced labour or slavery;
- Safe, secure and healthy working environment;
- Fair compensation in cases of work-related death or injury;
- Right to organize trade unions for collective bargaining;
- Freedom of children from exploitation;
- Proper sanitation facilities, dining facilities, maternity leave, childcare facilities and human resource development.
Labor unrest for increasing wage is the most crucial issue facing the apparel sector of Bangladesh. Minimum wage in Bangladesh is the one of the lowest; globally ranging from Tk 1,662 for a month. The entry level salary for apparel workers in Bangladesh was generally set for Tk 1,200, and was later raised by the Government to Tk 2,500, which was to take effect from November, 2010. But, this did not satisfy the workers who were negotiating for Tk 5,000 as a minimum salary. Furthermore, they also demand holiday time, official union recognition, and sick pay.
Although it is ensured by government to form union is legal to some extent for some sector to establish and ensure the labor rights. Most of Bangladesh’s labor unions are associated with political parties. In early 1995, clashes between jute mill labor groups and the police resulted in numerous injuries and a few deaths. Violence and the threat of violence by trade unions have produced wage increases in excess of productivity increases, raising unit labor costs. Worker layoffs, or the mere threat of reductions in-force, can be expected to cause some of the most serious labor disputes. Labor disputes do not necessarily need to be heard before a legal court. Many companies have found it effective to resolve issues before a Labor Tribunal. Labor in private sector enterprises is mostly non unionized and comparatively more productive. Productivity in Bangladesh has been affected by hartals (general strikes) called by political parties and movements, which take their toll in downtime by intimidating people from leaving their homes. So, one question has been raised, ‘do the labor unions really work for the labors or for their own benefit as they related to the political parties?’
Another common scenario in Bangladesh is Child labor. Child Domestic service is a widespread practice in Bangladesh. The majority of child domestics tend to be 12 and 17 years old. But children as young as 5 or 6 years old can also be found working. A survey of child domestic workers found that 38 percent were 11 to 13 years old and nearly 24 percent were 5 to 10 years old. Child domestics works long hours, getting up well before their employers and going to bed long after them. On 50 percent domestic workers work 12- 14 hours a day. The child domestic workers are often the least paid in the society, their remuneration ranging from 80 taka to 400 taka per month. In most of the cases, they hand over all their earnings to their parents, leaving nothing for themselves. Law is there for preventing child labor in Bangladesh, but no one is concern about this cruelty.
Current legal mechanism to protect labor rights
Bangladesh has labor laws that are not always enforced. The labor law of Bangladesh clearly describes all things related labor and workforce including wage and salary, termination, redressing, work environment, female worker, recruitment, unionization, child labor and so on. According to the latest labor act ‘The Labor Act 2006’ some important points Bangladesh labor law are described as follows-
A permanent employee at a company must give his employer 14 days notice if he wishes to quit or one month notice if the employee is paid on a monthly basis. Termination is considered a “discharge” in the case that an employee is fired for reasons of mental or physical incapacity, illness or other reasons not related to misconduct by the employee. An employer must pay compensation when a termination is unrelated to discharge or dismissal, and must give justification when they do terminate on grounds of discharge or dismissal.
Section 100 makes a provision of 8 working hours a day for an adult worker, but an adult worker may work 10 hours a day provided all the conditions of section 108 have been fulfilled. According to that section the employer is required to pay the worker, overtime, double the rate of his/her usual wages. i.e. basic & dearness allowance, if any. The employer is also required to maintain an overtime registrar as per the law. The new law makes a provision of total 48 (forty eight) working hours for a worker, but it can be extended up to sixty hours, subject to the payment of overtime allowances as per section 108 of the law.
No child who has not completed fourteen years of age shall be required or allowed to work in any factory. An adolescent who has completed fourteen years of age shall allow working in a factory if s/he is trainee or s/he has certificate of fitness and government permission.
Employees are allowed to make unions to establish and ensure their rights but the government does not permit any unionization in the EPZ.
According to the labor Act 2006, every worker must enjoy paid sick leave, casual leave, and festive holyday. Female worker will get paid maternity leave also to a certain limit. This act tells about employee safety, health and resolving any kind of disputes and unfairness also.
Even though these acts are passed by the government but these are not enforced properly in Bangladesh because for whom these laws are created, they are ignorant about it and government also failed to interpret them among the people.
The current laws regarding protecting labor rights good enough, but most of these laws are written in the book. In Bangladesh a large number of workers work in RMG sector. But very few garments factory maintain the law but not every law. Most of the factory does not ensure safety of the workers. Workers work in unhygienic and hazardous environment. So the workers become sick. Garments and fire is closely related to each other. But in Bangladesh most of the factory has no or very few fire extinguisher and the buildings are so congested. So many accidents are happening every day. For example, in the latest fire accident on 14 December 2010 at a garments factory close to the capital Dhaka 31 workers got killed. The killed are all women and workers of Ha-Meem Group’s Sportswear Factory, located in Ashulia, an industrial zone just on the outskirts of the capital.
Another main problem in our country is political instability. Because of these reason government policies, rules and regulations are always changing. The labor unions become politically influenced. So they work for attaining political goals as well as their own goals rather than establishing labor rights. So strikes take place.
Public sector workers’ wages are set by the National Pay and Wages Commission and may not be disputed. In the private sector, wages are set by industry, and collective bargaining rarely occurs due to high unemployment and workers’ concerns over job security. The legal workweek is 48 hours, with one day off mandated. This law is rarely enforced, especially in the garment industry.
Children under the age of 14 are prohibited by law to work in factories but may work (under restricted hours) in other industries. However, such restrictions are rarely enforced and children work in every sector of the economy. In 2002, the government estimated that 6.6 million children between the ages of five and 14 years were engaged in all types of employment activities, many that were harmful to their well-being.
So from my point of view, the laws are quite ok to protect the labor rights but mechanisms are very poor to protect labor rights. To protect the labor rights the government should interpret the laws to the general workers, monitor the activities of labor union, and monitor the private industries’ policy and so on. As the country steps to the 21st century, it aims at accelerated economic growth, human resource development and self-reliance. Central to all the efforts to reach those targets will be poverty alleviation, rural development, involving women in all national activities and creating a well-educated healthy nation to be able to face up to the challenges of a fast moving technologically advanced global society. If all these have been done, the labor rights must be protected one day.