Why ‘Workers Welfare Association’ is not enough to enjoy GSP?

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The ‘trade union’ issue in Bangladesh industry is the talk of the town, as recently members of the European Parliament has visited Bangladesh and warned again canceling GSP facilities if government and employer does not allow workers to form and join trade union. On March 18 this year, three European Commission bodies sent a joint communiqué which said it was essential that the Bangladesh government implement the four recommendations made by an International Labor Organization committee last year, or risk being shut out from the GSP that it enjoyed. The four issues are “full alignment of respectively, the EPZ draft law, the Bangladesh Labor Act, with the UN core labor convention modalities for establishing trade unions and the right of trade unions to operate freely”.

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Under the Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential tariff scheme for all products Bangladesh enjoys duty free market access to the EU countries, which is the single largest export destination for the RMG products, a postponement of this facility could introduce 12% tariff on imports from Bangladesh. This kind of warning is not expectable as Bangladesh is improving rapidly in those issues comparatively many others country like China, India, Vietnam, and Pakistan and so on.

In China, workers do not have the right to join or form trade unions of their choice. There is only one lawful trade union nationwide, the government controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which acts as the leading body of all local union organizations, which are allowed under the Trade Union constitution. There is no right to labor strikes in Chinese law. Freedom of labor strikes’ was written in the Constitution of 1975 and 1978, but was removed in 1982. In a paper published by the ITUC in 2015, China was listed as one of the worst countries in the world to work in. The report cited physical attacks and threats against workers who participated in strikes by both employers and the government.

There are 50,000 registered unions in India and most of them are under some six or seven central trade unions. India is the worst performing country among countries in Asia where FWF operates in both the Gender Development and the Gender Inequality Indexes, according to the 2015 Human Development Index report. Similarly, the World Economic Forum ranks India 108th out of 145 countries in the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, whereas Bangladesh ranks 64th. The most common violations related to freedom of association involve police violence, and the arrest and dismissal of striking workers and trade union leaders in India.

In ILO Conventions 87 and 98, it is that “The right of all workers to form and join trade unions and bargain collectively shall be recognized.”  “Workers’ representatives shall not be the subject of discrimination and shall have access to all workplaces necessary to carry out their representation functions.” (ILO Convention 135 and Recommendation 143).

If we take a comprehensive look at the industry of Bangladesh then we see workers’ rights are improving in Bangladesh’s factory significantly including establishment of trade union and it should be recognized by the international media and human rights organizations. At the same time, some local media and labor unions, who mostly forgot to point out the shiny image of RMG sector, should highlight it as it will be more helpful for protecting labor rights as well as improving the industry, which ultimately turn the country into a middle-income country, the dream of the government.

After deadly incident of Rana Plaza building collapse forming trade union in Ready Made Garments (RMG) industry has increased largely. There were 326 trade unions in the  RMG sector until 2015, of them 138 was registered in 1983-2012 and the rest was registered in 2013-15 after the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed more than 1,100 people. Mahmud Hassan Khan, vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), informed recently that after Rana Plaza a total of 591 trade unions had been registered in the RMG sector.

On the other hand, Bangladesh government has already kept the provision of forming trade unions in the export processing zones, in line with the ILO convention framework. Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed had said if 50% of the members of the Workers Welfare Association (WWA) of the EPZ factories consented to registering as a trade union, then the WWA would be allowed to register under Ministry of Labor and Employment as a trade union. However under pressure of the international government and nongovernment agencies Bangladesh government is currently considering further amendment of the labor law to satisfy them. State minister for labor Mujibul Haque said, “We feel there is a need for amendment to some provisions of Labor Act and we will sit with the national tripartite consultation committee on the amendment”.

The necessity of workers organization like trade union is undebatable but when it comes as pressure and at the same time, it hampers procedure of factory work that causes of huge loss of employer then it is re-thinkable. The mindset of owners has changed and they have no reservation about the constructive trade union activities in the sector. However, the key problem of introducing trade union in the factories is that the workers who are the leaders of the unions are not aware of the labor act and labor welfare. When workers are well cultured about their rights and responsibilities and act self-determinedly then a trade union can serve its purpose.

And current law and corresponding activities in the factories has kept provisions for bargaining and putting problems and proposals and demands to the owners through Workers Welfare Association (WWA). Interesting thing is that forming trade union is not mandatory anywhere in the world but forming Workers Welfare Association (WWA) is mandatory in Bangladeshi RMG industries. WWA is a constructive and effective model how workers awareness increases and grievances are being resolved constructively.  This model already has proved itself to be considered as an example for whole world suffering for workers right assurance. And at this point of time when most of the Bangladeshi factories are practicing WWA model, extra pressure from international government and nongovernment organizations to rename such model as trade union will only increase instability in the sector- industry insiders opined.

Many researches have shown that strict labor laws never brought benefits to the workers. Sudden reformation could affect the sector and many companies could go out of business and many workers could lose their job. In a country like Bangladesh where structural democracy is not well practiced not even in universities and top professional communities how it will be beneficial in less educated people’s community like labors. Most of the time workers have been exploited by the ill motive trade union leaders in Bangladesh in the past. Many labor leaders used such unions and labor politics for their own purpose in many cases.

Implementation of ‘Trade Union and strict labor laws’ in many western countries has brought such a recruitment and HR strategy where companies have only few full time employees. Most of the companies depend on out sourced contractual employees. And in such a way they avoid providing them rights to bargain and negotiate and to create unrest. And for most of those contractual workers, they always suffer for insecurity. They can lose their job anytime without any reason. They hardly have any right in the company.

But in the contrary most of the employees in Bangladesh are permanent employees. And they enjoy leave, incentives, benefits, insurance, medical treatment, bonus and other facilities fully. Unlike the contractual jobs, permanent jobs are more secure. So, when trade union and strict labor laws in western countries still could not stop labor communities’ grievances and miseries why that model has to be pushed here in Bangladesh by force- many industry insiders questioned.

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