Workers' rights: Ups and downs | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 25, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:24 PM, March 04, 2017

Workers' rights: Ups and downs

The Dhaka Summit on Skills, Employability, and Decent Work, inaugurated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was held near the end of 2016. Director General of International Labour Organisation(ILO) Guy Rider visited Bangladesh on the occasion of the summit, and leaders of national trade union and employer federations participated in different sessions to share their findings, experiences, and opinions. A number of papers were presented in this summit, and a number of contracts were signed with the aim of providing skill training for the youth.

However, just after this positive initiative, in an unfortunate situation at Ashulia, at least 59 factories were shut down by owners when workers demanded an increase in the minimum wage. Hundreds of factory workers were sued and suspended from their jobs. A number of cases were filed against the labour leaders and many were arrested and put under remand. This happened solely due to the absence of regular dialogue between workers and owners and ignoring the importance of cooperation and role of trade union in this context.

Workers' welfare has been guaranteed in the Constitution of the Peoples' Republic of Bangladesh. Section 14 dictates that “It shall be a fundamental responsibility of the State to emancipate the toiling masses, the peasants and workers, and backward sections of the people from all forms of exploitation”. Section 15 also mentions the right to guaranteed employment at a reasonable wage and the right to social security. The aim of the National Labour Policy of 2012is to ensure an investment friendly atmosphere by a creating productive, exploitation free, decent, safe, and healthy workplace for active citizens and to establish workers' rights and dignity of work. The government of Bangladesh enacted the Labour Law of 2006, amending it later in 2013. Moreover, Bangladesh Labour Rules was also introduced in 2015. These policies are all in place to ensure the rights of workers in Bangladesh. 

Vision 2021and its associated Perspective Plan have set development targets for the country by the end of 2021 with the aim of upgrading the country's status of a low income economy to the first stages of a middle income one. It is expected that citizens will have a higher standard of living, better education, social justice, and an equitable socioeconomic environment.

If we look back to the government's first term in power, we can see a number of ups and downs in workers' rights and workplace conditions.

The government has formulated various labour policies since 2010, namely the National Occupational Health and Safety Policy 2013, National Labour Policy 2012, National Skills Development Policy 2011, and National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010. Additionally, Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation (Amendment) Act 2013 was enacted and Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation Rule 2010 was introduced. The minimum wage for RMG workers was set at BDT 5,300 in two steps with 5 percent of basic as yearly increment.

In the meantime, workplace disasters depicted Bangladesh to the international community in a negative way. At the end of 2012, the fire at Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 workers. The world's biggest structural failure was recorded in Bangladesh when the eight storied Rana Plaza building in Savar collapsed in 2013. Killing 1,133 workers, this disaster left thousands of workers injured, bringing suffering and uncertainty to their families. A total of 3,789 workers were killed in workplace accidents and violence between 2009 and 2013, while 8,451 were injured in different incidents. The majority of workplace accidents in Bangladesh occur due to the lack of administration, negligence, and avoidance of occupational health and safety (OHS) provisions on part of the employers.

In its Election Manifesto of 2013, Awami League stated, “Necessary funding and supply of technology will be made for the flourishing of cottage industries, weaving, rickshaws and van, and opportunities will be created to increase the efficiency of existing manpower. In order to reduce pseudo unemployment and poverty, the informal sector will be made more dynamic and productive and its relationship with the formal sector will be made closer.”

It also declared, “Awami League is firmly committed to put in place a Labour Policy compatible with Chapters 15, 28, 38 and 40 of the Constitution of the country as well as with the ILO convention and to implement multifaceted measures to implement labour welfare. The government's ongoing programme for fulfilling minimum wages for workers and adjusting such wages in pace with living expenses, inflation and growth rate of the economy, will go on. Towards that end, the role of the Wages Commission and the related laws of the land will be brought under sharper focus. In parallel with steps to provide trade based training for workers, and the resultant increase in their productivity, their right to trade unionism will also be ensured.”

With the second term of the government in session, it is now necessary to carefully observe the maturity of different development issues regarding workers' welfare that were declared in the manifesto. The year 2021 will mark the golden jubilee of Bangladesh's independence. The government envisions a middle income Bangladesh by 2021 where poverty will be drastically reduced, citizens will be able to meet every basic need, and development will be on fast track with ever increasing rates of growth.

The government had adopted the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy of 2015 earlier this term to protect the rights of domestic workers. Bangladesh Labour Rules 2015 and Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation (Amendment) Rules 2015 were also introduced during the current session.

However, after the Rana Plaza collapse, another deadly accident occurred in Tampaco Foil Factory in Tongi on September 10, 2016 that took the lives of 40 workers and caused huge damage to the neighbouring area. Investors, who have been advocating for greater protection of factory workers through comprehensive fire and safety inspections, are alarmed and saddened by this latest tragic and avoidable loss of life.

Issues of promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all are included in the SDGs. In fact, decent work has been considered as a driving force for the achievement of the SDG agenda. However, recent experiences remind us that decent work still remains elusive in Bangladesh. Employers do not care for safety issues unless they are compelled to do so. One of the very important pillars of decent work is workers' rights. But the registration process of a basic union seems overly complicated, while there is a provision for mandatory participation of 30 percent workers to unionise. Meanwhile, inequality is widening and poses a great threat to sustainable development. Inequality is increasing, despite sustained economic growth, because the growth is uneven.

The World Bank has said that its new Country Partnership Framework (CPF) 2016-2020 will support Bangladesh to achieve its vision of reaching middle income status by 2021. World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, Qimiao Fan, said, “Despite daunting challenges, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in reducing poverty and advancing growth and development.” He added, “Job creation tops the development agenda and this requires higher, sustainable growth”. In this regard, Bangladesh has to improve its social infrastructure significantly.

In this regard, we need to use our human resource effectively to achieve the target. Workers are integral parts of industry and national development. So, without involving them with this journey, nothing will be achieved for the nation. For the implementation of the SDGs, we need to address the issue of capacity development of the workers very steadily and ensure the skill development of our youth workers. Besides, we should also upgrade the skill sets of those workers who may lose their jobs due to redundancy. It is a must to ensure Social Safety Net for all. Only if we can do this, will it be possible to attain our development goals.

As Bangladesh is determined to be a middle income country by the year 2021, we need long term and short term planning, which will change the country's existing development structure. The government has already approved 7th Five Year Plan. To implement it, we need technological development. But we also need to transform our manpower into human resources. Side by side, we need adequate work opportunities, decent workplace conditions, standard wages, OHS provision for workers, development of living standards, and social security. Together, all these can build a better future for Bangladesh.

For this, we must nurture our existing work force. We need to organise the informal sector workers by arranging suitable and upgraded vocational training. Entrepreneurs, investors, and owners should play a vital role like the government in this regard. Workers should be brought under the protection of identity cards. In recent times, we have seen that workers without identification have to go through immense suffering and harassment at the hands of different law enforcing agencies that spelt disaster for lives and livelihood. The Minimum Wage Board needs to be revised for reasons like price hikes, rising house rent, and rising salaries of government employees. Although there is provision for forming the Wage Board after five years, in the Labour Act, it is also mentioned that it can be reviewed, if necessary, after three. It is a matter of deep concern that growing inequality is widening the difference between the poor and the rich, the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer. We must turn this situation around.

For the sake of sustainable development, we have to go forward. We need to build educated, modern, and world class manpower. This skilled manpower will not only be the part of the country's domestic economy, but it also will strengthen the economy through remittance. In this regard, we need to make a dynamic bridge between agricultural and industrial work. We have to ensure trained and modern labour forces for agriculture, forest, fisheries, and livestock sectors. We need to arrange trainings for those factories which are going to shut down due to lack of technological expertise and automation. We need to modernise the existing agriculture sector and initiate alternative training for excess/surplus workers. For individual development, increase of family income, and national development, we need to transform our manpower into human resources. Last but not least, we need to develop youth workers through vocational training, ensuring their skills are recognised and certified, which are critical for formalising their jobs.

Social dialogue is an integral part of industrial relations—it is the foundation of mitigating and reducing disputes. However, social dialogue depends on the equal dignity, recognition, and capacity of all parties. The scenario here is everything but. Trade unions are not treated with respect. Not only equal distribution, but effective participation of trade unions must also be ensured for the better industrial relations. The relations between factory owners and workers have improved over the years, but they have not reached the expected level. However, 90 percent of cases at the labour courts in Bangladesh can be solved at the sectoral and factory levels with better social dialogue.

The government has recently drafted the Provident Fund Scheme for Informal Sector Workers of 2016, which seems to be a positive step for informal sector workers. A large number of workers in the informal sector will be benefited by this scheme. Under this scheme, enlisted workers will be provided financial support from the Workers' Welfare Foundation.

But there remain glaring gaps in the Labour Law. It focuses only on establishments, largely ignoring informal sectors and agriculture, where huge numbers of workers work. Trade unions demanded a National Minimum Wage to combat inequality, but it was not included in the amendment of the Labour Law in 2013. Compensation for workplace accidents is not adequate, workers get only four months of maternal leave whereas government employees get six. Besides, no directions are given against recruiting temporary workers for permanent positions, whereas outsourcing and contractual works have been legalised.

It is now necessary to reduce the gap between different parties, while negotiation should be supported by information. Short term–long term concern should be separated, good governance should be ensured, and the legal system should be reviewed for better results. We need a permanent tripartite consultative mechanism to build sound relations between employers and employees. The consultative council will be an authority and its recommendations have to be accepted by the policymakers and other stakeholders. Besides, a rights based approach is of the essence in labour law, industrial relations, and social dialogue.

Finally, we look forward to a better and prosperous Bangladesh that has fulfilled development targets, where sound industrial relations will be ensured, workers' rights will be secured, and exploitation will be eradicated.

Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed is Executive Director, Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS). Md. Yousuf Al-Mamun is an Information Coordinator at BILS

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