Do We Need to Worry?
Our labour practices and instances of child labour are once again receiving international attention, and some changes in the trade dynamics and global alignments persuade us to take a careful review of Bangladesh labour laws, enforcement, and standards. What can we do to improve work conditions in RMG industry, tea plantations, ship breaking, aquaculture, and the service industry, and especially the domestic work sector? And who is regulating our manpower export sector? Since the answer has serious implications for Bangladesh's trade relations and the reputation of our "brand", there is need for some brainstorming.
Before I explore the questions raised, allow me to give credit to our journalists who have been at the forefront of our national efforts to document and expose practices that result in exploitation of labour. A recent front page story in this newspaper titled, "Toiling Away Childhood" (February 29, 2016), reminded us once again that some sweatshops in Keraniganj engage in the practice of hiring underage boys and girls. Moreover, we cannot deny that children under 14 years are often found working in almost all sectors, including agriculture, industry, services, and particularly, fisheries and domestic households.
The National Public Radio (NPR), a US government supported radio network, ran a story on a book by Kevin Bales, Blood and Earth, who wrote that "shrimp demand satisfied with slave labour is also driving an environmental disaster in Southeast Asia", and identified the Sundarbans and Dublar Char as places where he found slave labour. Commenting on another book on this subject, Bonded Labour: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia, Professor Indrani Chatterjee of the University of Texas, Austin, said, "The central conundrum that powers this book is the existence of millions of bonded labourers in all the nation-states of South Asia, despite comprehensive legislation to abolish it."
Can Bangladesh ignore these problems or do we need to address the issues raised? The short answer is that we can do so only at our own peril. Labour practices and the right to organise by workers have recently received a lot of attention in Western media, triggered by terrible industry accidents in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. This issue was also raised in the context of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is well-known that the TPP has many provisions that relate to labour practices in developing countries, including laws, rights and concerns. It is a foregone conclusion that any TPP partner country where there is exploitation of labour and a lack of freedom of movement would be severely sanctioned. Developing countries, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, were warned early on that any restriction on workers' right to unionise or collective bargaining or other practices that might appear to limit the right of workers would come under international scrutiny.
At a recent meeting in Cambridge, MA, USA on March 6, 2016, organised by the International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), various speakers discussed the impediments to greater exports of frozen food from Bangladesh, and spoke on the labour practices in Bangladesh. Senior Secretary of Commerce, Bangladesh, Hedayetullah Al Mamoon, assured the gathering that these issues were on the government's radar screen, and expressed hope that Bangladesh would soon start following Vietnam, our main competitor in the RMG sector, in improving labour conditions in the country. Al Mamoon and Maksudul Hasan Khan of the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock also emphasised on the need to enhance the country's public relations efforts to showcase progress made so far, in the same measure.
Kevin Bales and Siddarth Kara identify three sectors in Bangladesh where they claim slavery is prevalent: tea plantations, hatcheries, and domestic households. Both Bales and Kara are advocates for a cleaner environment and see a nexus between environmental deterioration and exploitation of labour. To quote Bales, "Slavery and environmental destruction are doing a deadly dance. The scale of their joint disaster is so great that it has simply been too big to see, until now. It is also subtle, a creeping erosion of life wrought by the hands of millions of slaves compelled to destroy their own livelihoods even as they destroy any chance of arresting global warming."
The employment of domestic workers has also come under a lot of scrutiny. Let us admit that we have to enforce the laws relating to child labour, trafficking, and sexual exploitation when it comes to the employment of workers. As we take strides towards a middle-income status in the comity of nations, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure decent wages and better living conditions for everyone. And, since we live in a world with a free flow of information and a globally networked economy, it is imperative to ensure that we are forcefully combating the curses of human trafficking, debt bondage, child labour, and forced marriage. We also need to strengthen measures to crack down on the exploitation of the Bangladeshi workforce in the Middle East.
The writer is an economist and author of a recent book, Economics is Fun. Short Essays for the Masses.