Concerns still exist
The proposed amendment to the labour law, expected to be finalised in June, claims to bring changes for workers -- for the better. In reality, many of its provisions will have a contrary effect, particularly on those in the garment sector.
"In many important areas, the employers are being given undue benefits over the interests of workers," said AKM Nasim, senior legal counsellor at the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity (ACILS).
Take for instance, the provision for owners to terminate workers for “arson, vandalism and obstruction to work”. No such words are present in the existing labour law.
Another new clause was put in the draft which empowers the owners to terminate a worker's contract for leave of absence upwards of 10 days without notice. Under such circumstances, workers are not entitled to any compensation for termination of their contracts.
The government initiated the process of amending the current Labour Law 2006 after questions arose about the country's continued eligibility for generalised system of preferences (GSP) for the US market, on accounts of its low labour standards and occupational safety.
But the scope for free formation of trade unions at factories, one of the prime demands of the advocacy parties the world over, however, was not addressed properly in the Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Act 2013.
The amendment maintains a provision that a worker will not be a member of trade union of a factory if he/she loses job.
"We have been demanding cancellation of this provision for a long time, but it has been kept unchanged. A fear of termination remains among workers, so they can not freely join trade unions,” said Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, assistant executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies.
But Mikail Shipar, labour and employment secretary, said it is unlawful to fire an employee for participating in trade unions.
"The provision for not harassing workers representatives in participation committee will automatically be implied to trade unions."
A participation committee is the simplest form of trade union, found in factories with a minimum of 50 workers.
But labour leaders doubt the efficacy of such an addition: as is practice now, a host of charges is typically framed against an employee once the factory authorities learn of his/her involvement trade union.
They, however, welcomed the new rule which states that it is no longer mandatory for the Department of Labour to inform factory owners after workers file for trade union -- one of the deterring factors now.
Furthermore, the draft fails to clarify what constitutes “subversive” acts, for which the workers are sometimes penalised under the current law.
“This is one of the flaws,” said Md Salim Ahsan Khan, a lawyer at the ACILS.
The existing labour law stipulates that factory owners share 5 percent of their profits with the workers. The amount will now be transferred into a welfare fund.
“The withdrawal of profit-sharing rules is like stabbing the workers on the back,” said Shirin Akhter, president of Jatiya Shromik Jote-Bangladesh.
The proposed amendment, however, would enforce some positive changes, too. Take for instance, the clause that prohibits owners from obstructing or blocking the exit doors at factories at all times to facilitate quick exodus in cases of emergency.
It calls for fire drills in factories every six months, instead of every year as the present law stipulates.
A clause has been inserted that bars owners from bringing structural deviation to factory layouts approved at the time of the building's construction.
It also stipulates that a company which has at least 5,000 workers in all its concerns establishes a healthcare centre.
The new law makes it mandatory for the owners of factories that have at least 100 workers to introduce group insurance for employees. Payment of salaries through bank accounts is also a must.
In case of death of workers, owners will have to realise the insurance claims and hand over the money to the relatives of the worker or the labour court.