Amendment to labour law inadequate
AS many national and international rights organisations and foreign buyers expressed their serious concern over workers' rights and safety, especially after the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Garments tragedies, the government took steps to amend the Bangladesh Labour Law-2006 to ensure adequate rights for workers. The National Parliament recently passed Bangladesh Labour Law (Amendment) bill 2013.
The government, after passing the bill, said that the new law was a major advancement in establishing workers' rights, and that it would also bring more stability in the industrial sector. Whereas, immediately after passing of the bill, the international human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, said that the new law will be inadequate for protecting rights of workers. The Bangladesh committee of World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), in a national seminar on July 12, asked the government and drafting committee to correct mistakes and ambiguity in the law. 30 trade union organisations of the country also submitted their suggestion to the ministry concerned, and after passing of the bill they expressed their frustration over the new labour law. They said that the amendment to the law was wrongly drafted; it is not equitable and thus it will go against fundamental rights of the workers.
Due to this controversy, it is important for legal experts, trade unions, employers and the government to review and analyse the new law. If we go through some sections of the amended law we will find many basic flaws. As we all know, the right to 'free trade unionism' is a much discussed issue in the industrial sector.
All trade union organisations of the country, the European Union, USA and many foreign countries that buy RMG products from Bangladesh raised their voice for establishing trade unions in all the factories and industries and also in EPZ. Frustratingly, the new labour law has practically ignored this fundamental aspect. Section 12, S.13, S.23 (3) and S.4 of the new law do not clarify the definition of the term 'closure of institution' and 'misconduct of worker.' Due to only this flaw of the section any employer or owner can abuse the law by accusing any procession or strike as "workers' misconduct." By taking advantage of this section of the law an employer or owner can dismiss his workers.
The new law has kept the previous provision of 30% membership for forming new unions, which practically negates the idea of free trade unionism. Section 180 (b) of the new law limits the eligibility of the membership of trade unions only to the enlisted workers of a particular factory, so the fear of dismissal and harassment from the employer's side discourage workers from forming trade unions in their institutions. Whereas, if we look back even to the Pakistani period, there was a provision to elect 25% leadership from outside trade unions according to Industrial Regulation Ordinance, 1969. Consequently, many educated and efficient trade unionists with their leftist or humanist ideology joined trade union movements and created a glorious history of trade union movement.
The new law has not kept any provision to reduce or control arbitrary power of the Labour Director or Registrar of Trade Unions, so in the long run it will be very difficult for the workers to get registration for new trade unions. Section 2(45) of the new law excludes house rent benefit from workers' wages, which is totally illogical and inhumane. Not only this, despite repeated pledges from the government, this labour law does not provide any provision to allow 6 months maternity benefit for female workers. Section 10 (5) of the law does not clarify provisions for sick leave or temporary leave for the workers.
During the GSP debate western countries and many rights organisations urged our government and BGMEA to make some provisions so that workers could share the profit of the company. Since there has been such a provision in the law from 1968, by not implementing it to provide workers 5% share of profit of the company, the owners have deprived the workers of a lot of money. By amending Section: 232(3) and s. 233 of the previous law the government permanently abolished the right of workers to get a share of the profit. Section 309 of the new law does not provide adequate punishment for gross negligence of owners and their actions that could have dangerous consequences. This shows that we did not take any lesson from catastrophes like Rana Plaza, Tazreen, etc.
Bangladesh has ratified 7 ILO conventions out of 8, of which Convention87 and 98 are relevant to the right of 'Freedom of Association' and 'Freedom of Choosing Leadership.' Therefore, it is an obligation for our government to make our national law compatible with ILO conventions. People who really want a stable industrial sector in Bangladesh advocate for a labour law of international standard that provides possible maximum benefit for workers and ensures adequate work-place safety.
Now a question has been raised, why did lawmakers in the Parliament pass a law with so many flaws? There is heavy pressure on it from the owners and employers of industries. Since 26 MPs are directly or indirectly owners of different garment factories, it is no surprise that they are pressuring the government not to take any positive steps for making a 'worker-friendly labour law.'
Immediately after independence of the country there were about 80% workers in the public sector and 20% in the private sector. The figure for the public sector is now about 5-6% and 93-94% in the private sector. In both the industrial and the agriculture sectors there are about 6 million workers, and many workers from informal sectors should remain under the jurisdiction of this law, but the new law did not make this clear. Moreover, safety and hygiene at workplace, and rights of women workers, had been curtailed due to deficiency in the Labour Law-2006, and the same situation is still prevailing.
Statistics show that the majority of workers are engaged in the private sector. If the new law fails to bring desired stability and development in the industrial sector, then the responsibility will have to be borne by the lawmakers.
The writer is a lawyer.