Bangladesh government approved the new labour law with considerable amendments to boost worker rights, including the freedom to form trade unions, and improving occupational health and safety condition at the industries. After a factory building collapse in April garment workers protested that sparked debate over labour safety and rights. A long cherished international demand for improved law has been responded by the government and so they apss the new law. The legislation puts in place provisions including a central fund to improve living standards of workers, a requirement for 5 percent of annual profits to be deposited in employee welfare funds and an assurance that union members will not be transferred to another factory of the same owner after labour unrest. Approval of the new law doesn’t stop the debate, yet it puts new questions to be solved. As everything it has its both heads and tails though all concerned of the industry want it to see it so significant as if it can contribute hard to ease the labor related issues of the country and make the sector a stable one to grow to its potentialities.
The bill was passed keeping the provisions of allowing trade unionism in factories, ensuring safety measures for workers at their workplace, introducing compulsory group insurance and stopping children to be involved in hazardous works. To make the law time-befitting, a total of 87 sections of the 2006 labour law, first of its kind in the country, have been amended.
The parliament on July 15 passed the Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Bill, 2013 to make the existing law time befitting for workers’ welfare. Labour and Employment Minister Raziuddin Ahmed Razu moved the bill which was later passed in voice vote. The bill was passed keeping the provisions of allowing trade unionism in factories, ensuring safety measures for workers at their workplace, introducing compulsory group insurance and stopping children to be involved in hazardous works. To make the law time-befitting, a total of 87 sections of the 2006 labour law, first of its kind in the country, have been amended.
According to the amendments, employees would no longer need approval from factory owners to form trade unions. With the passage of the bill, workers would just need to apply to the labour directorate for authorization. The amendment also allows trade unions to be formed in the different administrative wings of a factory, something not permitted under the existing law. It also has the provision of paying compensation for the workers in case of their death, termination from services and accidental deaths during duty hours. Government is hoping that It will help in the implementation of better work programmes in the country initiated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for facilitating better market access for Bangladeshi products and improvement of labour standards. In 2009, the government initiated a process to amend the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 following the demands mainly from the labour unions to make it consistent in the line with the ILO Conventions which were ratified by Bangladesh. The 2013 amendment is the continuation of that action.
What has been amendedUnder the new amendment to the law, group insurance must be extended to cover a minimum of 100 workers instead of the earlier 200 workers. Four new categories of workers — ship-breaking, construction and agro firms and rice-husking mills — have been brought under the coverage of the amendment to the Bangladesh Labour Law. The earlier version of the labour law, passed in 2006, gave employers the power to veto the creation of unions, and hence, the number of trade unions in Bangladesh garment sector remains small. The new labour law also requires factories that sell products within Bangladesh to set aside 5 percent of their net profits in a welfare fund.
Over 85 sections of the earlier version have been amended after consultations with various stakeholders including representatives of workers, garment factory owners, buyers and the International Labour Organization. However, the old provision of gathering signatures of at least 30 percent of a company’s workers to form a union remains unchanged. But the new law prohibits the Ministry of Labour from passing on the list of signatories to factory owners. The new labour law has also empowered the factory owners by allowing them to sack a worker who was absent at his or her workplace for more than 10 days continuously.
The law would require prior approval from the Labour and Employment Ministry before either trade unions or employer organisations could receive ‘technical, technological, health and safety and financial support’ from international sources. The law contains important provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sex and disability, including equal wages for equal work. However, the revised law includes no measures to tackle sexual harassment of women, who make up the vast majority of workers in the ready-made garment sector, Human Rights Watch said. In offering amendments to the labour law, the government has missed an important opportunity to carry out 2009 High Court guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplaces.
The latest amendments to the country’s labour law have evoked strong criticism in both local and international arenas as many left organizations has termed it as ‘anti-worker’ and ‘pro-employer’ one. But different involved parties and stake holders of apparel manufacturers and garments including workers associations, buyers and international bodies are expressing diverging views.
Apparel manufacturers welcomed the newly amended labour law but the trade union leaders and garment workers expressed their concern, terming it “employer friendly”. According to the trade union leaders, amendments to the law were more in favour of employers than workers in the readymade garments (RMG) sector. These mostly serve the employers’ interests, they complained. Many provisions have been included in the draft amendment or withdrawn from the original law through the imposition of some restraints on the workers’ rights to effective trade unionism and bargaining capacity, they said. The experts also said that the new labour law did not simplify the process of forming trade unions in garment sector. Instead, the law imposed condition of obtaining government permission to have external help for trade unions.
Left-leaning parties, experts and labour leaders rejected the amended labour law passed by parliament on 15th July saying that the new law ignored the rights of factory workers, the garment workers in particular.
BGMEA, however, claimed that the process of forming trade unions in garment factories had been simplified in the amended law. Praising some clauses of the law, the BGMEA said the provision of forming separate women trade union was much logical. According to the amended law, women will have 10 percent representation at the executive committee of the trade union if 20 percent of the total workforce at any particular factory was women. The BGMEA leaders said that as 80 percent of the workers of RMG sector are women there should have higher representation of women workers in the executive body. The apex body of the apparel makers also lauded the clause of the law for keeping mandatory provision of group insurance, establishing permanent health centres for the workers.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Tuesday said amendments to Bangladesh’s labour law would ensure some improvements but the same still fall far short of protecting workers’ rights and meeting international standards.
Amid such debate higher ups of the industry and the country are hoping that the new labor law would help Bangladesh to retain the existing Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) facility in the EU market, and help withdrawal of the suspension of the GSP facility in the US market. Industry experts by this time opined that the new labor law is a good combination of provisions of liberty and control for the workers and industries of a country like Bangladesh. Explaining the pre-requisite of trade union formation they told, ‘Here all legally bind organizations need to have registration and so trade unions requires, there is no harm in it’. They also opined that if a minimum of 30% workers is not in a trade union formation, that may not properly represent that particular factory. On the other hand, a withdrawal of such provision would make scope of more than one union in one particular industry that certainly would hamper discipline would trigger political involvement within a workplace. Those possible happening could led the industry to destruction and vulnerability. Many experts opined that the welfare fund must be used for the beneficiary of the workers by investing in improving occupational health and safety.