Do you think the current legal mechanism of Bangladesh is adequate in order to protect labor rights?
Bangladesh has a long history of exploitation and suppression by powerful authorities dated back to hundreds of years. Today, after the independence, it seems that the very own authority of Bangladesh failed to come out of the shadows of her colonial masters. The labor force of Bangladesh has long been the subject of abuse and restraint when it comes to granting the workers their fair share of labor. The labor rights of Bangladesh are notoriously protected in the face of high global standard. The labor laws of Bangladesh have proved to be too inadequate to safeguard the labor rights. And to add to the grievance, the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) has shown consistent reluctance in formulating laws that would better protect the labor rights.
Bangladeshis face perilous working conditions and an awful minimum wage, which even with its recent increase, fails to cover the most basic cost of living. Moreover, minimum wage laws and other labor rights protections face serious systematic lack of enforcement. Workers in the apparel sector, Bangladesh’s largest export sector, face widespread 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 intentionally locked.
Workers and allied organizations that advocate for the enforcement and protection of internationally recognized workers’ rights face various impediments including threat of violence. The GOB assumed an oppositional approach to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and trade unions in Bangladesh during the “State of Emergency” declared in January 2007. Since the end of the “State of Emergency” in December 2008, the GOB’s approach to labor rights advocates has not changed.
Since the 2007 petition, and despite the scrutiny afforded by the case, the GOB has failed to direct its resources or apply the political will necessary to make substantial progress on the enforcing labor rights. Indeed, in recent weeks developments related to a leading human rights organization, the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), suggest backsliding on the part of the GOB and overall decline of the situation for labor rights advocates in Bangladesh.
The GOB has not demonstrated satisfactory progress 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.
CURRENT SCENARIO AND CRITICISM
Labor law in Bangladesh is not in conformity with Bangladesh’s international obligations with regard to freedom of association and the right to organize.
Several international bodies and organizations have expressed deep concern regarding the bleak 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.”
The ILO has repeatedly examined labor conditions in Bangladesh. The Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) has commented on multiple violations of ILO Convention 87, Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to
Organize Convention (1948) and Convention 98, Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention. The Committee found “serious discrepancies between the national legislation and the Convention .” The Committee noted:
“…the adoption of the Bangladesh Labor Act 2006 (the Labor Act), which replaced the Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969, and noted with deep regret that the Labor Act did not contain any improvements in relation to the previous legislation and, in certain regards, contained even further restrictions…”
The CEACR highlighted instances where domestic legislation in Bangladesh is in direct violation of internationally recognized labor standards, including the restriction of specific workers from joining or forming unions, those which act in a supervisory capacity named ‘confidential’ workers, overreaching exclusion of “essential workers” from those able to unionize, and several unwarranted restrictions on the right to strike.
The Government of Bangladesh arbitrarily imposes obstacles on labor rights NGOs and subjects them to restrictive operational requirements that impede their freedom of expression and deny appropriate due process of law to civil society actors
Due to excessive restrictions on labor unions, NGOs play an integral role in advocating for the working class and marginalized populations. Because of their forthright criticism of government policy and actions, NGOs are subject to violent attacks, which undermine their ability to do their work and exercise freedom of expression concerning government and business practices. NGOs played a critical role while trade unions were all but prohibited from functioning during the State of Emergency though their work garnered extraordinarily harsh treatment from the military.
International and domestic labor organizations, such as Odhikar and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), reported that “the government sought to impede their work either by canceling projects or subjecting them to restrictive operating requirements.” Odhikar, a USAID grant beneficiary, was notified by the NGO Affairs Bureau of Bangladesh, the office within the prime minister’s office that approves NGO projects, that its approval of an ongoing human rights training and advocacy project would be canceled citing objections to the project by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
On June 3, 2010, the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) was stripped of its legal NGO status. Since the early 1990s, the BCWS has maintained a longstanding tradition of advancing workers’ rights by documenting labor abuses and conducting educational outreach on labor rights. BCWS has gained international support for projects educating women of their workplace rights in order to tackle endemic gender discrimination with financing from USAID and the British Government’s Department for International Development.
A letter issued by the Bangladeshi NGO Affairs Bureau, and a subsequent “Non-Paper,” suggest the need for USTR to examine closely whether Bangladesh may not satisfy overall good governance criteria in US trade and development policy. The letter failed to provide reasonable legal basis for the actions taken, stating that the cause for stripping BCWS of its NGO status as “making chaos at RMG industry, supporting to make workers unrest, assisting, act like a turbulence to create unrest with others evil activities of anti-state and anti-social activity that all are evidenced.” None of the claims in this letter were substantiated by any GOB source with any factual evidence, nor was any notice given nor any process to allow BCWS to respond to these allegations.
The timing of the NGO registration cancellation raises concerns related to corruption and collusion between the GOB and the readymade apparel industry. In April 2010, workers at a major apparel factory, Nassa Global Wear, during their attempt to form an independent trade union, contacted BCWS for support and assistance with conflict resolution. While the NGO Affairs Bureau did not officially notify BCWS of the cancellation of its legal status until June 10, Nassa managers knew about it earlier, and Nassa informed its workers on June 6—four days before BCWS received notification—that they expected BCWS to be closed down.
More than one month after BCWS had lost its NGO certification, and only after widely condemned by international human rights organizations, the Government of Bangladesh in Dhaka issued a statement offering post hoc justification for the cancellation, indicating that BCWS “did not apply for renewal of registration with the NGO Affairs Bureau six months prior to expiry” as required. The Government of Bangladesh attempted to reassure concerned international observers by commenting that “registration of as many as 585 NGOs met… [a] similar fate on identical grounds.” However, BCWS was not offered prior notification of this breach, nor was notified at the time the registration was cancelled. BCWS refuted this account of events, stating that the registration required related only to the ability to receive foreign donations. At the time of expiry of the registration, they were not receiving foreign donations rendering the renewal process unnecessary. As noted, the authorities did not provide BCWS with any chance to present a self-defense before cancelling their registration. The cancellation was also highly unusual as in most cases in Bangladesh, appropriate sanctions are not applied when minor administrative procedures are violated by factory owners, or even when there is a serious breach of worker safety. For instance, the Garib & Garib Factory (discussed below) had multiple fires with fatalities, yet was given permission to continue to operate. Finally, the coincidence in timing between the NGO revocation and the arbitrary detention and torture of an associated labor rights activist, described below, supports the conclusion that the cancellation of the BCWS registration was a deliberate act of intentional repression of human rights activism on the part of the GOB.
Bangladeshi Government Security and Intelligence Services threaten and intimidate civil society and labor leaders through violence, torture and arbitrary detention
The Government of Bangladesh has used its security services to threaten and intimidate civil society and labor leaders with violence and torture. Recent images caught a Bangladeshi police officer aggressively beating a child during a garment workers’ protest with a baton. These images gained international media attention, however many more incidents of violence go unreported by both local and international media. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recently raised concern over the following cases to the CEACR:
“the arrest of and bringing of charges (later dropped) against members and leaders of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGWUF), the Shawdhin Bangla Garments Sramik Karmachari Federation (SBGSKF), the Textile Garments Workers Federation (TGWF), the Bangladesh Posak Shilpo Sramik Federation (BPSSF), and the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF); the imprisonment from September to December of the President of the New Modern Garment Workers and Employees Union (NMGWEU); the beating of female garment workers for having participated in a strike; and arrests, detentions and physical assault by the police against numerous workers from more than a dozen garment factories”
The ITUC’s statement represents a snap shot of government practice and does not speak to abuse by private security forces and hired “hooligans” lent tacit support by the police.
The Government of Bangladesh fails to monitor or enforce occupational health and safety standards and deliberately impedes NGO efforts to monitor health and safety standards.
Of all the major apparel producing countries, Bangladesh has by far the worst record of fatal accidents involving workers. As stated above, some 11,700 workers lose their lives in workplace accidents each year. Of the thousands of lives lost in 2010, the workplace death toll includes 21 workers that lost their lives in a fire at the Garib & Garib Factory, in the Gazipur district of Dhaka. That fire was just one of a number of fatal fires in the apparel sector. The fire was the third fire within a year at that specific factory, and the second of which caused fatalities. The factory’s fire-fighting equipment was “virtually useless”, according to the Dhaka Fire Service and Civil Defense. Workers could not escape because exits were locked and materials blocked the stairways. Factory owners, concerned and paranoid that workers might steal garments during a fire evacuation, risked the lives of workers by obstructing their exit.
In other cases, government officials have been accomplices to the poor safety record and reckless endangerment by workers. For example, an inquiry into a separate recent fire at the KTS Sweater factory found that the factory owners were cleared of criminal convictions despite admitting to have locked workers in the factory, after the police investigating the crime changed the details on the charge sheet.
The Government of Bangladesh has failed to enforce labor protections, including health and safety protections, and the pattern of inaction even in serious cases suggests collusion with employers. The GOB has harassed, detained and tortured credible civil society advocates, and has shut down a respected labor rights NGO, apparently in collusion with major apparel producing companies. The ‘Non-Paper’ and other written justifications for these actions by the GOB support the conclusion that the GOB is not seriously committed to due process of law, and is willing to scapegoat legitimate activists as agents provocateurs in order to detain them without real legal cause. Recent statements by major apparel producing companies, taken in tandem with the pattern of corruption in Bangladesh documented by Transparency International and others, suggest inappropriate and illegal collusion between the industry and the GOB. In brief, neither is there evidence of genuine commitment toward promotion of freedom of association and enforcement of labor law in Bangladesh, nor is there sufficient evidence of political will toward establishing the governance and rule of law that are necessary underpinnings of labor rights protection.
It is, indeed a matter of great regret that Bangladesh has failed to uphold the rights of her workers who are running the wheel of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). If immediate and proper measures are not taken by the government, there will be frequent protests from the labor industry, and that will in turn slow the process of industrialization of the country. Bangladesh, who is constantly scoring very low in the Human Development Index (HDI), must improve its legal mechanism to better protect the labor rights. There is no alternative but to formulate new laws and regulations, which will bring betterment on the part of Bangladeshi workforce, to support the industrial growth in the long run. No country in the world had achieved sustainable growth without adequately addressing the needs and demands of its workforce.
For: The Lawyers & Jurists
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