A dense cluster of shanty settlements stand in a sprawling line near Savar Bazaar. Hundreds of garment workers sleep on the floor, which is nothing but beaten mud. At least half of them used to work in Rana Plaza. Most of the families still carry the pain of the tragic incident. We move to a small room where 27-year-old Shirin Sultana lives with her family. Her ashen face is a reminder of the devastation. She seems to be asleep, tired and exhausted, tears run down her eyes.
Sultana worked in Ether Tex as a machine operator, which was on the sixth floor of Rana Plaza. When the structure collapsed, she managed to evade the rubble of pillars, squeezing herlf into a dark room. “The whole room was engulfed in thick dust. I couldn't breathe properly. I found five frightened workers trapped in the same room. We panicked and tried to rush in the darkness. But it was locked. Unfortunately, by that time a pillar fell on my leg. I was fortunate to survive. The other six died on the spot. My left leg was injured and trapped under the pillar. I could feel blood running down my injured leg. I cannot recall anything after that.”
Two days later, after the collapse of ill-fated Rana Plaza, she is rescued from the debris and dead people. From waist down, her left leg is cut off. For her family, the help they are getting from the local people is too meagre survive in Dhaka. Shirin's husband Md Ataur who is also a garment worker decided not to go back to the factory again. “My wife suffers a lot. I do not want to suffer like her,” he says.
Old Book, New Cover?
The series of Industrial accidents and international pressure have forced the government to amend the Labour Act 2006. However, the amended law, meant to bring changes in the lives of the workers, has become mired in controversy. Since the changes that the amended law might bring have still been kept in the dark, general workers aren't at all happy with it, says leading labour activists.
In the apparels sector, the common problems of the workers are low wages, lack of proper trade union rights, arbitrary abduction, irregular payment, forceful overtime, poor working environment, physical and sexual harassment, arbitrary termination and more importantly, accidents and deaths because of safety and security failures.
Awami League in its 2008 election manifesto pledged to amend the Labour Law 2006 to ensure the basic rights of the worker which is enshrined in the Constitution and follow the principle of the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) core conventions. However labour activists claim that the party has changed its stance and now overlooks the primary needs of the workers in the amended law.
Worker leaders allege that the government neglected the proposal made by the workers when the draft law was made. Workers have been demanding certain provisions that include: trade union rights without any barrier, proper maternity leave and benefits, gratuity benefits, profit sharing, safety issue etc.
Labour rights activist Kolpona Akter who heads the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) says, “Same laws and provisions for rights are always in the constitution. The constitution has recognised the fundamental rights of the workers, including necessary social protection, at workplaces. But the government never practices the law properly. So I do not think the amended law which is just a modification of Labour Act 2006 can bring any change to the scenario.”
New Law, Old Debate
In the last couple of hundred years under the British and Pakistan regime, Bangladesh has witnessed at least 44 different laws ensuring labour rights. However, to make a more precise and effective law, the government in 1992 formed a labour law commission, which prepared a draft labour code in 1994. The draft code was passed 12 years later in October 11, 2006. However, it carried some old clichés about labour rights.
According to the labour leaders, the amended law, enact on June 15, is just a shadow of its predecessor. Before the law was amended, the right to union without employers' interference is the most talked about issue among the workers and the owners. Even though the amended law discards the authorisation power of garment owners, the power it has given to the labour directorate will put the same hurdle before forming a trade union.
Kolpona believes that the amended law is a weapon to weaken the trade union movement. She says that as per the law the labour director will review trade union applications and will consequently allow them, but it is not mentioned in the law what kind of procedure the labour department will follow. “Workers are not all that much educated, trained with negotiation to face this kind of obligation. Moreover it is not mentioned in the law that on what criteria have to be met before a director gives permission for a trade union. So without proper direction it is still a vague section,” Kolpona says.
The amended law, moreover, restricts the labour rights in other ways. In the private and government offices, employees get six months maternity leave but the law entitles only four months maternity for women workers. It also cancells 5 per cent profit sharing of workers; in its place it includes a new clause having a welfare board and welfare fund. Workers fear that the owner will deprive them of their rights of getting a welfare fund. They fear losing the jobs as the law says that an employer can terminate a worker for any misconduct and the worker will not be able to receive any kind of benefits.
The Parliamentary Standing committee's recommendation about gratuity says that a worker will get 18 months benefit if s/he completes eight years work in a factory but the amended law dictates that a worker will get 30 days benefit if he works eight years or more. Labour activists say that the workers do not remain in the same place for such a long time. So it is quite difficult for them to be a beneficiary by the law.
Sultana knows nothing about the amended law--all she wants is a better work place and proper compensation. “We thought the government and the garment owners will come forward to help, but they do not even come to see us. We are passing very hard life here. Maybe within a few days we will have to move to our village in Chandpur,” she adds.
However, the workers allege that the owners are reluctant to invest in the improvement of the working environment of the factories and are not serious about paying proper compensation. According to Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, 2600 people died in the last two decades but the owners did not take adequate steps to make a safe place for workers.
The government, however, has introduced a new act called the Compensation Act-2005, in which the factory owners are responsible to bring workers under group insurance coverage. However, citing BGMEA statistics, labour leaders claim that over 1,200 export-oriented garment factories of the country don't have group insurance. A labour leader on anonymity tells the Star, "Garments industry owners and the related apex organisations are reluctant to bring the workers under the insurance coverage. After the Compensation Act-2005 is activated, in the last eight years the scenario remains in the same place as it was in 2005.
A BGMEA insider discloses that in 2005, the BGMEA, through a circular, made group insurance mandatory for all of its member-factories. He adds, “Six years have passed and only around 2,200 garment factories out of over 3,400 active members have come under the insurance coverage.”
The copy of BGMEA circular reads, “The factories that will not comply with the circular would not be provided with any facilities such as issuance of UD and UT (certifications needed for export of RMGs) from the association office.”
According to the Act, depending on the number of workers, every owner has to pay 12,500 taka to 100,000 taka to bring the workers under the insurance coverage. The group insurance provides each garment worker with 100,000 taka in case of 'disabilities while at work' and 125,000 taka in case of death respectively. But it has not been followed after the Rana Plaza incident and, like Sultana, many workers are trying to cope with the worst economic conditions in their life.
BGMEA president Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin states that the association does not have any special force to compel the factory owners to bring their workers under insurance coverage and also adds, 'Since the law has been amended, we hope that by this year all the factories will come under the insurance coverage.'
However, a former top official at Chief Inspector of Factories and Establishment, who preferred not to be named, claims that manpower shortage is one of the basic problems the department has been facing, since it has came to action. He also adds, 'Because of manpower shortage, we cannot visit factories and check whether the factories were following the law properly. Moreover, the department only has 2,000 workers to cover a big city like Dhaka. And if we want to cover all the factories including small business, it will take more than five years to complete the whole surveillance.'
At present the department only has 52 inspectors to cover the capital city. Officials claim that because of numbers it is quite impossible for them to check whether workers are covered by insurance and the other facilities.
Fear of Arbitrary Torture
Labour leaders are among those picked up at different times besides being frequently threatened and charged with offences. Babul Akther, president of Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers' Federation (BGIWF) expresses concern that different labour federation leaders are facing harassment by the law enforcement bodies and garment owners but the amended law does not provide any solution to this issue. He believes the criminal charges are brought against them only to stop BGIWF and other workers' rights groups from demanding due rights of trade union, payment and benefits etc.
In Bangladesh, many workers are being abducted and tortured. Labour activist Aminul Islam is one of them, who was tortured to death last year. Like him Golam Azam, a former elected workers representative at the Ring Shine Textile Mills was tortured by the law enforcers, because the workers were protesting for their due payment.
Azam was arrested in October 2011 by plainclothes men who Azam later identified as members of a state intelligence agency. He alleges that Mustafiz, who has been charged with the murder of Labour rights activist Aminul Islam, served as an informer of law enforcement and intelligence agencies inside the factories.
“Whatever we discussed at meetings among labour leaders about our rights would be leaked out to the owners and law enforcement before any of us spoke,” says Azam.
Azam still recalls the torment he had been through when he was arrested on October 22 2011. “We decided to call a press conference about our wage demands at an internal meeting but before we concluded, I got a call from higher authorities of Ring Shine Textile Mills. They asked me to see them,” Azam adds.
The same day garment owners decided to close the factories early. Azam became anxious after getting the call and he left the factory instead of meeting the owners.
“The way authorities came to know about our decisions, I suspected someone among us was leaking out information to the authorities and it became clear when I found Mustafiz guiding the Industrial Police to me,” Azam says.
As Azam was leaving the factory premises on a bicycle on October 22, Mustafiz helped the Industrial Police at Ashulia to turn Azam in.
“Mustafiz was at the meeting we had held earlier. Now with him aiding the police, it seems all pre-planned,” says the former garment worker, who was accused of 'inciting violence in the garment sector and a murder'.
Azam however, was freed by the Industrial Police after an interrogation of about one hour. As he stepped out of the police station, he found Mustafiz, now accompanied with plainclothes men from an intelligence agency.
Azam was dragged into a white microbus. 'The men kept beating me all the way till we arrived at Ramna thana,' says Azam. On the way he was cautioned that the next time he would want to arrange a press conference, they would kill him.
Ramna police did not have any specific charges against Azam and took him in under section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, showing him arrested on suspicion. The sub inspector at the time, Md Jafar Ali in a court forwarding mentioned, 'an intelligence agency' captured Azam for attempting to 'destabilise' the government by inciting garment workers to make unrest at Ashulia Export Processing Zone.
Azam, who has changed profession, thinks the law won't be able to bring any changes unless the owners and the government are willing to change it. “I heard that the amended law contains the problems it had before. I was a leader and I have gone through unbearable sufferings. So if the government fails to recognise these problems, the unrest will be an ultimate choice for the workers,” Azam says.
Over the last 22 years, the country's apparel sector has boomed to achieve a competitive position in the world. Having entered the apparel sector in 1978, with three decades of experience, Bangladesh has contributed 19 billion dollars to the country's export sector in the last 2011-12 fiscal year and is targeted to lift it to 21 billion dollars in the next fiscal year. Although the amount of earning is increasing every year the law and the government is yet to identify the problems of the workers, who are the real hero behind all the success.