While shopping in or passing by your neighbourhood grocery store, have you ever thought about the working hours of the shopkeepers? You have probably seen them opening the shops early in the morning and then closing the shops late at night.
How about your barber? More often than not, we see barbers working 12 hours, seven days a week. How about chefs and other workers working in restaurants? Bangladesh has recently seen considerable development in the restaurant business and as a result it has created quite a large job market. But most of these restaurants have workers working from around 9am to 11pm, a 14-hour work shift. Of course, they get breaks but they are still very long working hours.
The Labour Act, 2006 of Bangladesh expressly prohibits working for or forcing workers to work for more than eight hours under normal circumstances and 10 hours including overtime (proviso to section 108 of the said Act).
Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 defines all persons working in any establishment or industry, other than those working in managerial or administrative capacity, as labourers (except for specified cases). This means anyone working in a non-managerial post is protected as a labourer under the Labour Act unless they are in specific sectors which are excluded from the ambit of the Act. Since the persons I mentioned above without a doubt fall within the scope of the provided definition, the Labour Act shall apply for them as well. Because of the influence of the media, high number of jobs being created and events of recent years, only workers working in the factories come to our mind when we hear about “labour rights”. After considering the current conditions of workers working in shops and comparatively small businesses, I cannot help but ask: is the Labour Act only applicable for factory workers?
Due to our economy being heavily dependent on RMG export and concomitant international pressure on labour conditions' standards in the sector, most of our efforts of ensuring labour rights seem to have been directed towards the readymade garment factory workers. Protests, powerful trade unions and other factors also play a role in securing the rights of the workers working in the factories. Different organs of the government like the Department of Labour and Department of Inspection of Factories and Establishments are working for the rights of the workers and executing the provisions provided by the Labour Act with some help received from foreign agencies.
The extreme disregard towards the rights of the workers in other sectors can be illustrated with a few examples. According to the Labour Act, the workers shall be provided with an appointment letter and an ID card upon joining the establishment. Have you ever seen a shopkeeper or a barber or a waiter wearing an ID card? I certainly have not. Big stores like Agora, Shwapno, etc., are of course an exception in this case. Asking about appointment letters for shopkeepers, barbers or restaurant staff in most cases will assuredly lead to confusion or laughter.
There are also many serious provisions in the Labour Act which are not being followed by many business owners. Not following the procedures applying to firing or discharging a worker is a major example of such disregard. While the Act expressly states the procedures that have to be followed in case of firing, discharging, suspending or laying off the worker in order to ensure natural justice, in most cases this is done in an informal, ad hoc manner. This greatly violates the rights of the workers. The matter might be small to the business owners but it is of utmost importance to the workers because their livelihoods are at stake.
This disregard for the rights of the workers working in comparatively small businesses should not be taken lightly since it is a fundamental principle to honour the work of our workers. Article 20(1) of the Constitution of Bangladesh provides, “Work is a right, a duty and a matter of honour for every citizen who is capable of working, and everyone shall be paid for his work on the basis of the principle 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his work'.” So we must pledge to honour workers' rights in all sectors.
The reason for such disregard can be traced back to the lack of knowledge, advocacy and the absence of powerful and influential trade unions in many sectors. Workers must know that their rights and trade unions can play a vital role in this regard as previously witnessed in RMG factory worker unions.
There are thousands of workers employed in numerous sectors who contribute significantly to our economy. It's time the regulators and entrepreneurs realised this and fulfilled their responsibility to protect and honour the rights of those who work for them.
Nafiz Ahmed is a final year law student at North South University.