Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July 2014, 13:56 GMT

2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Bangladesh

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Bangladesh, 8 June 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ea66225b.html [accessed 25 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 162,200,000
Capital: Dhaka
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 182

Garment workers began protests in April to demand a minimum wage of BDT 5,000. These protests continued throughout the year, and many were met with violent repression: six workers were killed and many injured. Trade union leaders were arrested, tens of thousands of garment workers charged in connection with the protests, and the government closed hundreds of NGOs, including the Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Centre. The government deployed the army to Chittagong Port in order to bust a dockworkers' strike.

TRADE UNION RIGHTS IN LAW

Trade union rights are not adequately protected in law. While the Constitution provides for freedom of association, in order to register, unions must represent an inordinate 30% of the workers in an enterprise and must obtain authorisation from the government. No action can be taken prior to registration, and the Registrar may also cancel the registration with Labour Court approval. In general, only enterprise unions can be created and only current employees can be union members, which means that the loss of a job also leads to the loss of union membership. Public sector workers are prohibited from joining unions, although there are a number of notable exceptions.

Furthermore, the right to strike is also limited. All strikes must be called within a specific time frame or the dispute will be considered terminated, and the decision to strike must be taken by a three-quarters majority. The government can ban any strike that continues beyond 30 days in "essential services" or if the strike is considered a threat to national interest, in which case the 1974 Special Powers Act can be used to detain trade unionists without charge. Offences such as "obstruction of transport" carry exorbitant penalties of up to 14 years' forced labour.

TRADE UNION RIGHTS IN PRACTICE AND VIOLATIONS IN 2010

Background: The garment industry was the focal point of labour unrest in the country with protests throughout the year. One union leader estimated that 5,000 garment workers had been fired because of their alleged involvement in protests. Although publicly sympathetic with the plight of the garment workers, PM Sheikh Hasina was convinced that an "evil force" was behind a conspiracy to foment unrest in the industry. To address the unrest a special police force for the garment industry was created. Commerce Ministry spokesman Faizul Haque noted that 25% of Bangladesh's garment factories do not comply with mandatory standards on pay, working hours and conditions. In addition, two tragic garment factory fires claimed the lives of 62 workers and injured many more. The government increased the minimum wage to BDT 3,000 on 29 July; however, serious issues remain.

Child labour still widespread: On 12 June Sharfuddin Khan, a Programme Officer (Social Mobilisation and Economic Development) of the ILO, said an estimated seven million child workers are presently involved in hazardous jobs with the majority working in urban areas in informal sectors like factory, transportation, battery recycling, small workshops, shoe factory and household work. Sharfuddin said more than three million children work in Dhaka alone and that some 1.3 million are engaged in hazardous work.

Dock worker unions dissolved: In February, the government dissolved 13 dock workers unions at Chittagong port. As a result, dock workers under the affected unions now work directly under the berth operators. A letter signed by Chittagong Joint Labour Director Mohammad Asaduzzaman stated that any kind of trade union activity under the banner of the dissolved unions would be absolutely illegal and treated as a punishable crime.

The leaders of the dissolved unions said that the dissolution order was illegal and that they would fight against it in court.

Water transport union leaders detained: On 8 May, members of the Noujan Sramik Federation (NSF) went on strike after the union rejected a new pay scale that failed to meet their wage demands. The new pay scale was finalised in a tripartite meeting on 6 May among vessel owners, workers, and the government. However, representatives of the NSF were not at the meeting. Police arrested NSF acting President Shah Alam on 10 May along with NSF members Mohammad Taher and Monir. Police arrested Shah Alam on complaints of vandalism and causing a disturbance in front of Sadarghat launch terminal on 8 May. Complaints have also been filed against 125 striking workers. On 13 May, police arrested the NSF office assistant and the office janitor at the NSF office in Dhaka.

On 15 May, the NSF ended its strike after the government assured them of fulfilling some of their demands. Nur-e Alam Chowdhury, Chairman of the parliament standing committee on the shipping ministry, allegedly signed an agreement with the strikers. According to the agreement, all the cases filed against the strikers would be withdrawn and all detained workers' leaders released, Chowdhury said. On 17 May, thirteen NSF members, including NSF President Shah Alam, were granted bail by Metropolitan magistrate, Abdul Majid.

Union activists blacklisted in water transport sector: On 17 May, Launch owners in the Barisal region refused to allow more than 20 Noujan Sramik Federation (NSF) strikers to return to work. Abul Hashem, NSF Barisal Unit President, said that Launch owners refused to allow him to work after he was released from jail on 17 May. Khorshed Alam, Vice-President of the Barisal Launch Owners Association, said that those who tried to create unstable conditions in the water transport sector have been marked, listed and would not be allowed to return to work so as to avoid further trouble.

Raids and death threats for labour activists: On 30 July plainclothes police raided the house of the Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal General Secretary Khalequzzaman and that of the Jago Bangladesh Garment Workers' Federation President, Bahrine Sultan Bahar, in Dakha. The police arrested Bahar's elderly father in his absence. Police were also looking for Garment Workers' Unity Forum President Mushrefa Mishu; General Secretary of the Bangladesh Textile Garments Workers Federation Bazlur Rashid Firoj; President of the Bangladesh Textile and Garment Workers Federation Mahbubur Rahman Ismail; Bangladesh Garment Sramik Trade Union Kendra General Secretary KM Ruhul Amin; Nasima Akher from the Garment Shramik Trade Union Center; and others, as they were accused in complaints filed with the Tejgaon police. On 31 July, Garment Sramik Oikkya Parishad President Mushrefa Mishu said that she had received several telephones threats on the night of 30 July from a person named Mizan, who claimed to be a Special Branch officer who said that she would be killed in 'crossfire'.

Labour leaders arrested at Chittagong Port: On 11 October, members of the Dock Bandar Sramik Karmachari Federation (DBSKF) at Chittagong Port went on strike against six recently privatised berth operators to enforce their demands, which included the recruitment of scrutinised workers. DBSKF called off the work stoppage after the Chittagong Port Authority (CPA) assured them their demands would be met. But the private owners balked at the agreement, and Berth Operator Owners Association President Shahadat Hossain Selim said that it would not hire former CPA workers. In response, DBSKF resumed the strike. After the Shipping Minister intervened and was unable to resolve the dispute, the Government deployed the army to keep cargo moving at the port on 13 October. Port Security Director Lieutenant Colonel Kamrul Islam also banned all protests at the port. Despite the ban, DBSKF members attempted to demonstrate on 13 October. Police arrested 29 workers on the same day while 11 more were detained on 14 October. Three cases were filed against unidentified workers under the Speedy Trial Act for leading the protests in defiance of the ban, attacking police, and forced entry to the fourth jetty. During a special operation on 15-16 October, police arrested DBSKF labour leaders Biplob Majumdar, Maharram Ali, Akther Hossain and four others.

Pilot union leaders suspended: The Bangladesh Pilots' Association (BAPA) members who are pilots of the national carrier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines Ltd (Biman), went on strike on 28 October after launching an earlier protest on 22 October to protest the company's 9 September directive that changed the pilots' retirement age from 57 to 62. The decision would leave pilots without insurance and rehabilitation benefits after reaching age 57. The strike was called after Biman management suspended BAPA's acting President, Zakir Hossain; General Secretary Basit Mahtab; and pilots SM Helal, Farazi and Maksud on charges of leading the 22 October protest. Following the pilots' suspension, Biman Managing Director Mohammad Zakiul Islam said that striking pilots must return to work by 30 October or face legal actions including lay off.

BAPA pilots returned to work on 30 October after PM Sheikh Hasina's Assistant Private Secretary Saifuzzaman met with the pilots on 29 October and told them that the Prime Minister would look into their demands but that they would need to call off their strike without any condition. On 30 October, PM Sheikh Hasina said that international norms will be followed in providing benefits to Biman pilots whose service will be extended because of a change in retirement age. Hasina, who met with a 16-member BAPA delegation, said that the service age had been extended because of a shortage of pilots.

Mine union leaders dismissed: Nearly 300 workers at Maddhyapara Granite Mining Company Ltd (MGMCL) in Dinajpur went on strike on 27 November to protest the company's dismissal and the filing of criminal charges against MGMCL Miners and Workers Union leaders. The union leaders terminated on 23 November were President Mominul Haque Momin; Vice-president Sadequl Islam; General Secretary Mostafizur Rahman; Secretary Mehdi Hasan; and Office secretary Safiur Rahman. The company alleges that the union officials stole company documents and assaulted company officials. However, the union claims that it only attempted to block newly appointed company officials from entering company premises. MGMCL General Manager Md Abul Bashar (Administration) filed a case against the five union leaders under the Speedy Trial Act with Parbatipur thana on 25 November. The workers have also been demanding regularisation of their jobs since the beginning of the year.

Six killed during protests: Four people were killed and at least 60 other people were injured on 12 December when police attacked garment workers who were protesting over decreased wages under the government's new wage schedule. Eight of the injured were treated for bullet wounds. Two of those killed were identified as rickshaw puller Ariful Islam, 35, and CM Superior Garments worker Ruhi Das, 45. Ruhi was fatally shot in front of the Chittagong export processing zone's (EPZ) main entrance. The protests started after 10,000 workers at Korean Youngone Ltd arrived at work only to find that the company had closed all 11 of its factories for an indefinite period. Chittagong Industrial Police Senior Assistant Director Rezaul Masud said that police fired a total of 519 live rounds and 96 teargas canisters at protesters. Police detained at least 30 people in connection with the demonstration.

On 10 April, one garment worker of Opex Knitwear Ltd, of the Opex and Sinha Group in Kanchpur, Narayanganj, was killed and at least 10 others injured when company thugs attacked a group of 2,000 workers. Workers were protesting inside the factory for higher wages, overtime, leave allowances and wage increments. The worker killed was identified as Ziaur Rahman Khan, 25, a resident of Kanchpur. He was critically injured during the attack and rushed to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where he died.

Vertex Garments Ltd workers in Mirpur, Dhaka, stopped work on 23 July to demand the punishment of five company officials believed to be involved in the killing of nineteen-year-old Vertex worker Beauty Akhter. A witness saw Beauty fall from the top of the factory a short time after she quarreled with company supervisor Jharna Begum. Police arrested 11 people during the protests.

Denial of medical leave causes death/stillbirth: Garment workers at Dress World, Ltd, Vertex Group, at Savar protested on 26 July over the workers' claim that the factory denied sick leave to Hamuyun Kabir, 25, a quality inspector, when he became ill at work. After the denial, Humayun lost consciousness and was rushed to Jamal Clinic, where he was declared dead. Garment workers from Hong Kong-based Uttara Sweater Manufacturing Company Ltd at Uttara export processing zone (EPZ) at Shangalshi in Nilphamari protested on 19 December at the Nilphamari Deputy Commissioner's over a number of work issues. One issue involved a recent incident where company officials refused to grant sick leave to a pregnant woman who later had a stillbirth in the factory's lavatory.

Police violence against protesting garment workers: Protests at garment factories were widespread throughout the year and were often met with police brutality. Workers protesting over wage demands or management were frequently injured due to the use of batons and rubber bullets by the police to break strikes. Some of the incidents included the following: in Ashulia, nearly 50 garment factories suspended operations on 11 January when 40 people were injured during a demonstration of about 9,000 garment workers from three factories of the Envoy Group; about 40 workers of Navana Textiles Ltd (Navana) were injured on 12 April during a demonstration of 2,300 protesting Navana workers; about 30 workers of six Nasa Group garment factories were injured during a demonstration of 8,000 workers on 15 April; about 20 workers at AJ Garments Ltd garment factory in Ashulia were injured on 22 May when company goons attacked factory workers who demanded the removal of two company supervisors, Biplob and Rubel, who assaulted two operators, Mizan and Nasrin workers, on 20 May; on 19 June, at least 100 garment workers, including 10 police, were injured in Ashulia when police attacked about 7,000 demonstrating workers of Nasa AG Super Garments Ltd; and 200 garment workers were injured on 21 June when Bangladeshi police fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at tens of thousands of garment workers protesting at Ashulia. Dhaka Police Chief Iqbal Bahar said that 26,000 workers walked out of one factory to protest low wages and working conditions and were joined by more than 100,000 from neighbouring factories when the factories sent their workers home.

Many more incidents were reported, in particular, when workers protested to demand implementation of the government's new wage structure for garment workers. All involved workers being injured and the use of violence against the protesting workers.

NGOs closed over inciting workers' unrest: The government withdrew the registration for the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) of its legal status on 3 June. Investigators alleged that BCWS was involved in creating instability among garment workers in Narayanganj, Savar, Gazipur and Ashulia. The NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) Director (registration) AM Saiful Hasan ordered the Dhaka District Administration to seize the moveable and unmovable property of BCWS and freeze its bank account. On 16 June, BCWS organiser for the Savar District, Aminul Islam, was detained by security forces, beaten and forced to sign a self-incriminating statement. Mr. Islam was told that if he refused to sign, he would be killed in a staged "cross-fire incident," his wife murdered and children orphaned.

On 5 August, it was reported that the Bangladesh government had cancelled the registration of 334 NGOs in the last four months for their involvement in corruption, misuse of foreign funds and patronisation of militancy. The move is significant, as the government had cancelled only 56 foreign-funded NGOs since 1990. On 30 July, police filed charges against BCWS Director Ms. Kalpona Akhter; Director of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) Babul Akhter; and Aminul Islam on charges of inciting worker unrest. Police arrested and detained Ms. Kalpona Akter and Mr. Babul Akhter on 13 August. On 28 August, Babul Akhter was severely beaten in police custody by non-uniformed persons who also threatened to kill him in a staged incident. Aminul Islam surrendered to court officials on 29 August. Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter, as well as Aminul Islam, were released on bail on 10 September.

Numerous arrests of union leaders/workers: Numerous union leaders and workers were arrested in connection with garment workers' protests during the year. Some went into hiding. Among those arrested were Garment Workers Trade Union Centre adviser Mantu Ghosh on 31 July; Mohammad Shahidul Islam, President of the Kendriya Garments Sramik Dal; and six Florate Fashion Wear Ltd garment workers on 8 and 9 August; Jatiyatabadi Garments Sramik Dal President Haji Shahidul Islam was arrested on the morning of 9 August; Garment Labour Trade Union Centre (GLTUC) Vice-president Tuhin Chowdhury on 2 September; Garment Sramik Oikkya Parishad President Mosrefa Mishu on 14 December; Baharane Sultan Bahar, President of the Jago Bangladesh Garments' Workers' Federation on 16 December; and Evergreen Products Factory (BD) Ltd factory workers Noor Alam and Motiur Rahman on 18 December.

Other arrests included nine garment workers on 5 August, four Shed Fashion garment workers on 7 August and 30 Shed Fashion garment workers at Zamgora on 10 August.

Garment factories close, dismiss workers amid protests: Numerous garment factories closed and dismissed their workers, citing "worker unrest" as the reason for such actions. Some of the factories that closed and/or dismissed workers include the following: Pearl Garments Company Ltd of Indian-owned Epic Group in Ashulia dismissed 148 workers out of its total workforce of 1,350 on 17 April; at least 25 people, including 10 policemen, were injured on 15 June when police attacked several thousand workers from Shomahar Sweaters, Ltd Focus Sweaters, and Waga Fashions in Tejgoan with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets; on 10 June, Shomahar officials suspended operations for five days after workers demanded a wage increase; on 20 June, garment workers at the Oceanian Sweater Ltd at Dendabar, Savar, Dhaka, protested over the payment of wages; and three Envoy Group factories also announced layoffs after their workers demanded release of their co-workers arrested in the 13 June protests.

Similar unrest occurred at several other factories including the following: Padma Poly Cotton Ltd in Dhaka's Tejgaon industrial area where management closed the factory in response to a workers' demonstration over the dismissal of 97 co-workers; Universe Knitwear Factory in Ashulia, where at least eight people were injured on 4 December when police attacked 1,700 factory workers who were demonstrating over the closure of their factory with no prior notice; and Meddler Apparels Ltd in Ashulia, which closed for an indefinite period on 2 December after workers protested on 1 December to demand the removal of abusive factory supervisors and an increase in the piece rate.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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