Last Updated: Friday, 29 August 2014, 14:18 GMT

2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Bangladesh

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 11 June 2009
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Bangladesh, 11 June 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c52cb021e.html [accessed 31 August 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: 143,910,000
Capital: Dhaka
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 182

On 17 December, Bangladesh lifted its two-year-old state of emergency, less than two weeks ahead of parliamentary elections. Trade unions have been prevented from organising, meeting members and holding statutory meetings for the renewal of the mandates of their leaders. As a direct result, worker exploitation has intensified and near anarchy has prevailed – especially in the garment sector.

Trade union rights in law

Proclamation of State of Emergency – all trade union activities banned: While severely restricting "trade union activities", the State of Emergency did not impose similar restrictions of any kind on employers or their federations. The Emergency Powers Ordinance 2007 (EPO) supplemented by Emergency Power Rules 2007 (EPR), used to implement the State of Emergency, has granted security forces the ability to disregard arrest warrants and provides them with the right to conduct arbitrary arrests and detention. Section 3 of the EPR explicitly forbids any forms of assembly, demonstration or rallies without prior permission from the authorities, with punishment set at two to five years' imprisonment for violators.

New Labour Law still contains many restrictions: The Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006 (BLA) is considered a step forward for clarity because it effectively consolidated laws from 25 separate acts into one comprehensive law. However the operation of the State of Emergency, EPO and EPR effectively prevented the implementation of many of the provisions of the BLA.

Many of the previous restrictions on trade union rights existing in previous laws were carried over into the BLA.

For example, before a union can be registered, 30 per cent of workers in an enterprise have to be members, and the union can be dissolved if its membership falls below this level.

Unions must have government approval to be registered, and no trade union action can be taken prior to registration. Unions can only be formed at the factory/establishment level, with some exceptions (such as private road transport, private inland river transport, tea, jute bailing, bidi production) where union formation can take place based on geographic area. There can be no more than three registered trade unions in any establishment.

Membership in a union is restricted only to workers currently working at an establishment, meaning that severance from employment also results in the end of a worker's membership in the union. The law further provides that even if the worker contests the termination, union membership is only returned when the worker is actually reinstated, which can take years given the slowness of Bangladesh's courts.

Candidates for union office have to be current or former employees of an establishment or group of establishments. The Registrar of Trade Unions has wide powers to interfere in internal union affairs and may also cancel the registration of a union with Labour Court approval.

Exclusions from union membership: Under the BLA, workers in government or employed in offices under government authority are prohibited from belonging to a trade union with the exception of railway, postal, telecommunications, public works, public health engineering and government printing press workers. Members of local government units, fire fighters and the security forces are also denied the right to form unions. Managerial staff and employees who are designated by employers as "confidential" are prevented from joining unions.

On the positive side, new categories of workers, including teachers and NGO workers, are permitted under the BLA to form unions. However, because of the strict restrictions on union organising during the state of emergency, the new regulations were not formally instituted.

Right to strike barely recognised: Three quarters of a union's members must agree to a strike before it can go ahead. The government can ban any strike if it continues beyond 30 days (in which case it is referred to the Labour Court for adjudication), if it involves a public service covered by the Essential Services Ordinance or if it is considered a threat to the national interest. In this last case, the 1974 Special Powers Act can be used to detain trade unionists without charge. The government may ban strikes for renewable periods of three months. Sentences of up to 14 years' forced labour can be passed for offences such as "obstruction of transport".

Strikes are not allowed in new establishments for three years from the date the establishment begins commercial production if the factory is newly built, owned by foreign investors or established with foreign aid.

Compulsory conciliation and court referral procedures: The labour law requires that parties to an industrial dispute must follow legal procedures (such as request conciliation, serve notice of a strike or lock-out, or refer the dispute to the Labour Court for settlement) within a specified period or the authorities will consider the labour dispute to be terminated. Section 212 of the BLA prohibits for a period of one year the raising of the specific issue or subject of such an industrial dispute after a termination order of this type is issued.

EPZ Law – significant restrictions continue: EPZs are considered outside the purview of the BLA. The EPZ Workers Association and Industrial Relations Act (2004) provides for the formation of trade unions in EPZs from 1 November 2006. However, the law sets out several phases for implementation, with complicated and cumbersome procedures to be followed at each stage.

At stage one, EPZ factory workers were only allowed to set up Worker Representation and Welfare Committees (WRWC). Stage one ended on 31 October 2006, but continued in practice into 2007 because of systematic delays of the government to set out and implement the administrative procedures to transition worker organisations to stage two of the law.

At the second stage of the law, workers were allowed to go through a process to transform their WRWC into a trade union, referred to as a Workers' Association (WA) in the law. A WA can be created provided over 30 % of the workforce requests that the association should be set up. More than 50 % of all the workers in the factory must vote affirmatively for the WA to be formed. Only one federation of WAs can be formed per EPZ, if at least 50 % of the registered WA in the zone vote for it.

The Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) Executive Chairman also has almost unlimited authority to deregister a Workers' Association should he determine that the WA has committed an "unfair practice", violated any aspect of its own constitution or of the EPZ Law, or failed to submit a report to him.

The ban on strikes or lockouts in the EPZs was due to expire on 31 October 2008. But the rules allowed BEPZA to extend it until 31 October 2010.

EPZ Labour tribunals still not formed: Although the EPZ law provides for the establishment of an EPZ Labour Tribunal and an EPZ Labour Appellate Tribunal, these two tribunals have yet to be established. As a result, workers in the EPZs were effectively denied access to the judicial system for their grievances. BEPZA is vested with responsibility to administer labour matters for all enterprises in EPZs.

On 7 September, a government order said that labour rights bodies can carry out their activities under the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 on a limited scale at any place in the country. Election to collective bargaining agents (CBA) is now possible on permission from police commissioners in city corporation areas and from district magistrates elsewhere. The trade unions will have to report to metropolitan police commissioners, district magistrates and in some cases upazila nirbahi officers (UNO) or the officials 48 hours ahead of any meetings. No assembly exceeding 500 people will be permitted. Labour unions will be allowed to convene indoor meetings at their offices or officially approved places. Outdoor meetings are prohibited. Meeting agendas will be restricted to labour and organisational issues. Devices that could make the discussions audible outside the meeting venues have also been prohibited.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2008

Background: On 17 December, Bangladesh lifted its two-year-old state of emergency, less than two weeks ahead of parliamentary elections. In the absence of any legal framework to resolve work-related issues, workers resorted to street demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins. The Bangladesh government blamed 'outsiders' for worker unrest in the garment sector. The country has some 4,000 garment factories, employing around 2.2 million workers, mostly women. Workers faced inhumane treatment, unannounced plant closures, late payment of wages, cheating on overtime pay, and violent aggression from company thugs and police. The minimum salary, last fixed in 2006 at US$25 per month, remained frozen throughout 2008.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) condemned Bangladesh for its continuing failure to provide full trade union freedoms and for permitting serious violations of ILO Conventions both in law and in practice.

Elections in the EPZs: At the start of 2008, 69 enterprises in Dhaka and Chittagong EPZs voted to establish trade unions. Based on a decision of BEPZA, 124 more enterprises in the two EPZs will have to hold elections by 2010. According to our information, a number of Asian foreign investors had publicly warned that allowing the formation of trade unions in export processing zones would hold back further investment in Bangladesh's garment sector.

Arrests, turmoil and death in the garment industry: In January, Bangladesh police brought charges against the following trade union officials for alleged violations of the 2007 EPR: Asma, President; Rabeya, General Secretary; Rashedul Alam Razu, CBA Secretary; all from the Bangladesh Independent Garments Workers Union Federation (BIGWUF); Mir Abul Kala Azad, General Secretary of Shawdhin Bangla Garments Sramik Karmachari Federation (SBGSKF) and Shamima Nasrin, ist President; Lovely Yesmin, Textile Garments Workers Federation (TGWF);Tuhidur Rahaman, Bangladesh Posak Shilpo Sramik Federation (BPSSF); and Amirul Haq Amin, National Garments Workers Federation (NGWF). The charges were later dropped.

Ronjit Haldar, a Bangladeshi staff member of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS),was arrested, questioned and then released on bail on 22 January. Bent Gerht, the Southeast Asia Field Director for the US-based Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), was briefly detained and interrogated by Bangladesh authorities on 24 January. They also arrested Mehedi Hasan, the WRC representative in Bangladesh. Mehedi Hasan was charged with provoking labour unrest in violation of the provisions of the EPR of 2007 and detained for several days after a court order for interrogation. After pressure from national and international labour organisations, on 3 February, Hasan was released from custody. All charges were then dropped.

On 3 November, the NGWF demanded the release of Hafizur Rahman Sabuj, a Hamim Group garment worker in Dhaka and President of the New Modern Garment Workers and Employees Union (NMGWEU), who was put in prison from 29 September until early December after the company filed bogus charges against him and the union's vice-president. In September, the NMGWEU had demanded a pay increase and better working conditions. Hamim Group also sacked 21 workers who are NMGWEU members and officials. In addition, according to the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF), workers were being asked to sign letters saying they would not engage in trade union activities in the factory and acknowledging that management could fire them if they do so.

Garments workers at Magpie Knitwear were dismissed as they joined Shadhin Bangla Garments Sramik Karmachari Federation, in November 2008. A solidarity action was launched by the ITGLWF asking for the reinstatement of a worker unfairly dismissed as well as for the set up of industrial relations mechanisms. The ITGLWF also contacted the brand known to be sourcing from the factory. No answers had been received at the time of writing.

A group of female garment workers of New Town Knitwear Co. were stripped naked and savagely beaten by their supervisor as a result of their participation in a strike following management's announcement that working hours would be extended from 9.30 p.m. to 12.30 a.m. The ITGLWF asked for an independent enquiry into the incident and wrote to C&A and Franke & Schulte GmbH, the companies thought to be sourcing from the plant, to inform them of the situation and request their intervention. C&A replied indicating that they would investigate the allegations.

Murdered at work: Two workers, Mohammad Khokon and Abdul Malek, both of whom worked at 500 World Dresses Limited in Dhaka, were severely beaten by factory security guards on 30 January. Khokon died the following morning from injuries. At least ten workers were injured by the police during a demonstration following the death. Police arrested the factory manager and a security guard and charged them with Khokon's murder.

Workers protest against inhumane treatment: At the end of December 2007, factory workers at SQ Garment Ltd in Dhaka engaged in a two-day strike to protest against the death of a female worker, Salma Aktar, 22. She died from being forced to work even though she was seriously ill. On 2 January, the company closed the factory because workers engaged in a strike. One thousand workers protested the closure and were joined by 1,000 workers from 20 other factories in the area.

On 3 April, Russell, a worker at RM Sweater Ltd in Dhaka died at the factory gate after having been refused to seek medical treatment after he lost consciousness at work.

Worker protests met with intimidation and attacks: All along the year workers, mainly working in the garment sector, were attacked and some of them injured by the police or security guards while demonstrating either for better working conditions, pay increase or dismissals. This occurred in January at Kimberly Fashion Ltd factory (25 workers injured), the MBM garment factory in Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ) (50 workers injured), Metro Garments factory in Narayanganj, Jaya Group of Industries at Kanchpur under Rupganj upazila in Narayanganj, Shine Fashion Ltd factory in DEPZ (20 workers injured – three seriously), in a garment factory located in Kalurghat Industrial area in Chittagong, in the garment factory Gazipur, near Dhaka (40 workers injured), Honor Way Textile and Apparels Ltd in DEPZ (one hundred workers injured out of 700 hundred demonstrating – 18 of them critically) and Abani Knitwear Textile Mills of Babylon Group at Rishipara in Savar.

Police launched an attack against about 20,000 garment workers from more than a dozen garment factories in Fatullah on 12 April, in Narayanganj. At least 50 workers were injured including three by shotgun pellets.

In November, 16 Esses Fashions workers were arrested and detained following protests for unpaid overtime and poor working conditions including physical abuses and injuries by security guards. The trade union, Shadhin Bangla Garments Sramik Karmachari Federation (SBGSKF), was not invited to attend a meeting held earlier between the company and the police in order to try to quell the unrest. When informed about the situation, Inditex, the brand known to be sourcing from the factory, immediately audited the factory.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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