The ready-made garment industry has been the dominant plank of Bangladesh’s development strategy for the last several decades. It is the primary source of foreign exchange and the nation’s largest export industry, employing more than four million workers. The employers’ organisation, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), is politically and socially powerful. Factory owners are major political players: in 2013, more than 30 members of Parliament owned garment factories. Meanwhile, the regulation unions in Bangladesh is heavily tilted against workers, making effective unionisation difficult, particularly in the garment sector.
In all national economies, the legal framework surrounding labour unions conditions but does not necessarily determine how they operate. With the worldwide shift in economic policy favouring the mobility of global capital over the last 30 years, this framework has been constricted against unions to such an extent that it operates essentially as an iron cage.
The Bangladeshi labour law is reasonably comprehensive in many regards. But even in the most well-functioning of jurisdictions, workers cannot depend on state institutions to enforce labour rights, especially when neoliberal policies encourage close links between the state and private investors. Only the presence of independent and powerful unions can ensure the enforcement of labour laws, and it is in this regard that Bangladeshi legal and political practice is most flawed.
The most important components of labour law for unions are those that regulate or provide rights around freedom of association and the right to organise. Unfortunately, in regards to both, the labour act of Bangladesh leaves much to be desired. For instance, up until last year, the registration of a workplace union required that it has membership of at least 30 percent of the factory workforce. The list of members must be provided to the factory owner. All union officials must be employed in the factory, leaving them particularly vulnerable to dismissal or pressure from the management. Further, industrial action cannot be taken unless there is a two-thirds majority in favour of it, and there is no legislated right to stop work in dangerous situations. Similarly, despite improvements in occupational health and safety as a result of the activities of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety occupational health and safety (OHS) laws remain weak and provide no legal right to elect representatives or committees. Indeed, Bangladesh has not ratified two important international labour standards on OHS: the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No 187) and the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No 155).
Combined with corruption and political interference in the bureaucracy, these laws make it burdensome for workers to get proper representation. Achieving the threshold of members is difficult when workers face risks to employment—and even physical safety—by identifying themselves as unionists. In an industry where workers are treated as expendable inputs to the production process and where the supply of labour is almost inexhaustible, reluctance to stand up against managers is entirely understandable. Even when, against all odds, unions have managed to reach the thresholds, it is not uncommon for unions that are politically out of favour—especially those on the far left—to be refused registration.
All this leaves the Bangladeshi union movement, like the Bangladeshi polity in general, highly fragmented. It prevents unions from adequately protecting or advancing the interests of workers.
Coercion and compliance
Bangladeshi unionism is chaotic, with large numbers of federations and factory-based units, multiple political alignments and little cohesion all around…Read the rest of the article here: State of disunion.
This piece originally appeared in Himal Southasian (www.himalmag.com).
Colin Long is the Victorian Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union, Australia, and a member of the executive of Australia Bangladesh Solidarity Network and Australia Asia Workers Links.