Labour law 2013: many steps backwards
Rights groups argue that the country has taken numerous steps backwards with the labour law 2013, although it is often billed as a landmark.
“This would be good news if the new law fully met international standards, but the sad reality is that the government has consciously limited basic workers' rights while exposing them to continued risks and exploitation,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, told The New York Times.
Although the new law is said to offer workers the full freedom to organise, the reality is far from it, said Nazrul Islam Khan, president of Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Sramik Dal, the labour wing of the opposition party BNP.
“The amended labour is not worker friendly as it will favour the owners only,” he said, adding that the government did not take into consideration the suggestions made of the labour leaders.
Take, for instance, the 10 percent threshold for signatories to form a trade union that they advocated for, to facilitate unionising.
But, as it stands now, signatures of 30 percent of the factory's workers are needed, as under the old law, to form a trade union. It seems unfeasible as many garment factories employ thousands of workers.
Even the section in the new law which bars the country's labour ministry from giving factory owners the list of the 30 percent of workers who want to form a union, has been met with scepticism by the labour leaders.
They claim that the government officials can still give out the names to factory owners, perhaps because of collusion or bribes.
As was practice until now, after receiving those lists, owners often fired union supporters or pressed many to withdraw their names from the petition, bringing the number below the requisite 30 percent mark for a union to be recognised, the labour leaders added.
Another objection to the new law is with the section which says that workers would need registration from the directorate of labour for formation of trade union.
“It is extremely difficult to obtain a registration from the labour directorate. In recent years, hardly any registration was given by it,” Khan said, adding that he himself has a registration pending. Human Rights Watch, too, said the new law would make unionising harder.
It criticised the legislation for adding more industrial sectors, including hospitals, where workers would not be permitted to form unions. The group noted that workers in Bangladesh's important export processing zones would remain legally unable to unionise.
In addition, the government would be empowered to stop a strike if it would cause "serious hardship to the community" or be "prejudicial to the national interest."
And workers at any factory owned by foreigners or established in collaboration with foreigners would be barred from striking during the operation's first three years. Under the new law, unions would need government approval before they could receive technical, health, safety or financial support from other countries.
Plus, the law excluded workers of many informal sectors like domestic workers, rickshaw-pullers and agricultural sector as they were not recognised as workers.
“Bad is better than worse,” Roy Ramesh Chandra, general secretary of the local arm of IndustriALL, a global union federation, said regarding the new labour law.
He said the new law is in a direct conflict with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention 1987, as the government cannot command on a certain percentage for formation of trade unions.
The labour leader added that the legislation might not have done enough to persuade Europe not to suspend trade preferences or to get Washington to reinstate such preferences.