Labour law must protect right to strike
At a time when RMG workers have taken to the streets to demand their right to a liveable wage, with labour leaders accusing factory owners of ignoring their demands and punishing them for protesting, it is frustrating to find that the latest amendment to the country's labour law has gone ahead without taking into account the voices of workers' representatives either. According to a report in this daily, the Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Bill 2023 was passed in parliament on November 2, allegedly without the consent of labour leaders.
Labour leaders have accused the amendment of failing to remove the obstacles to forming and registering trade unions, and failing to protect workers' right to strike as well. Given that during the most recent protests, the BGMEA decided to shut down many of their factories in line with section 13(1) of the labour law, thus depriving workers of their wages and punishing them for their "illegal" strike—according to the provision, a strike is considered illegal if enforced without prior notice—it is not difficult to understand why workers are feeling increasingly isolated and frustrated.
The right to strike is a fundamental right enshrined in international human rights and labour laws, and it must be protected by our labour law as well. This is not only for the sake of workers; it will benefit owners too, since amending our law to conform to international labour standards is one of the prerequisites for the preferential trade benefits we will be looking to get from our trading partners in the future. For example, once Bangladesh graduates to a developing country in 2029 and loses its current duty-free trade access to the EU, we could potentially be granted access to the EU's GSP Plus scheme instead.
The country's positive development trajectory means now, more than ever, we need clear, long-term policies to keep the momentum going. So why then does the latest labour law amendment not even take into account the simple demand of bringing maternity leave in line with international standards to six months instead of four? Even more concerning is the introduction of bills like the Essential Services Bill, 2023, which was placed in parliament earlier this year, and if passed, will allow the government to take away workers' right to strike in any service they deem to be "essential" for public interest.
This outsize influence of political power at the expense of workers cannot be the way forward. The authorities must demonstrate they are serious about conforming to international labour standards and ensuring inclusive economic development, which must be reflected in our labour laws.