The cabinet yesterday approved a draft law protecting EPZ workers' right to freedom of association, a week after an unpleasant US review came on the GSP.
As per the proposed law, at least 30 percent workers of a factory within an export processing zone will have to apply for registration to form an association.
After registration with the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (Bepza), the association's executive committee will be elected for one year.
One candidate or a panel will need at least 50 percent votes to be declared a winner and there will be a fresh election in case of fewer votes.
Right now, the EPZ Workers' Association and Industrial Relations Act 2009 does not allow trade unions, a term not mentioned also in the draft okayed by the cabinet.
However, the existing workers' welfare associations in the export processing zones will act like trade unions under the proposed Bangladesh EPZ Labour Act 2014, cabinet sources said.
On June 27, 2013, US President Obama announced his decision to suspend Bangladesh's trade benefits under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), citing serious shortcomings in workplace safety and labour rights.
The US also provided Bangladesh with an action plan which listed conditions, including reform of EPZ rules, for reviving the GSP status.
In the plan, the government was urged to “repeal or commit to a timeline for expeditiously bringing the EPZ law into conformity with international standards so that workers within EPZ factories enjoy the same freedom of association and collective bargaining rights as other workers in the country”.
With the US setting 16 conditions, the government began reforming the garment sector.
On Wednesday, United States Trade Representative Michael Froman in his review said, “We are seeing some improvements that move us closer to our shared goal of protecting workers from another workplace tragedy such as the April 2013
“However, we remain concerned about the large number of factories that have yet to be inspected, the lack of progress on needed labour law reforms, and continuing reports of harassment of and violence against labor activists who are attempting to exercise their rights.”
The proposed law was drafted in line with the Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013). Earlier, the government had formed a committee at the Prime Minister's Office to prepare the draft.
“A new law was needed as the EPZ workers were out of the jurisdiction of the labour law as they are paid higher salary and in dollars, and get some special facilities,” Cabinet Secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told reporters after the cabinet meeting.
“The draft was prepared in consultation with all the stake holders, including the owners of the industries located at the EPZ.”
Bhuiyan also said there will be no objection or interference on the part of the owners regarding the formation of association since they were also consulted before preparing the draft.
“The law will improve the country's image worldwide. Besides, it will have a positive impact on trade and investment,” State Minister for Labour and Employment Mujibul Haque Chunnu told The Daily Star when asked about the prospect of the law.
“We need to promulgate such a law as per the ILO convention,” he said at his secretariat office, adding both the investors and the pressure groups will be happy with the law.
Presided over by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the cabinet also approved the draft Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) Act 2014 with minor addition to the existing ordinance.
Instead of holding meeting each month, the draft proposed for four meetings of the EPB Board in a year and inclusion of two new members -- one from forest and environment ministry and another from ICT ministry to the board.
Held at the Bangladesh Secretariat, the cabinet also gave the final nod to the draft of Bangladesh Nuclear Energy Control (Amendment) Bill 2014 requiring widened qualifications of chairman and members of Nuclear Energy Control Authority.