United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Bangladesh, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa420.html [accessed 3 June 2015]
This 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.
Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Opposition parties include the Awami League, the Jatiyo Party, the Jamaat-E-Islami, and several smaller parties. The opposition began to boycott Parliament in March, demanding that the Government establish a caretaker government to conduct national elections in early 1996. The Home Affairs Ministry controls the police and paramilitary forces which bear primary responsibility for maintaining internal security. The army and paramilitary forces are responsible for security in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), where a tribal force has waged a low-level insurgency for 20 years. There were fewer violent incidents in the CHT in 1994 than in the past. A cease-fire between government forces and insurgents generally held throughout the year. Because the Government strictly controls access to the CHT, it is not known whether security forces there committed abuses in 1994. Bangladesh is a poor country; approximately 40 percent of its 122 million people exist on incomes insufficient to meet minimum daily needs. Sixty percent of the work force is involved in farming, which accounts for approximately 40 percent of the gross domestic product. Efforts to reform the economy have been stymied by political stalemate, public sector enterprises, and other entrenched interests. The Government continues to restrict or deny many fundamental rights. The Government's issuance of a warrant for the arrest of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreem for insulting religious beliefs, and its failure to prosecute those who made death threats against her, drew international attention and raised questions about the Government's commitment to freedom of expression. The Government continued to use national security laws to detain political opponents and other citizens without formal charge, although the Government allowed the Antiterrorism Act to expire on November 5. Police routinely use torture and other abuse in interrogating suspects. Some victims died in police custody. The Government rarely convicts and punishes those responsible for torture or causing unlawful deaths. Violence against women remained a serious problem.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
According to government figures, 64 persons died while in custody. In cases where post mortems were performed, there was no evidence that any prisoner died from maltreatment. However, continual reports of police abuse and deaths of prisoners indicate that this claim is deceptive and masks serious abuse. For example, on March 4, police arrested a truck driver in Nishindara and reportedly beat him to death. Eight police officers were suspended as a result of this incident; however, there is no indication of further punishment. On November 27, a 21-year-old man died while in police custody (see Section 1.c.). Violence, often resulting in killings, is a feature of the political process. Demonstrators from all parties, and even within parties, often clash during rallies and demonstrations. Violence among student political groups reportedly resulted in 27 deaths, 1,500 injuries, and the closure of 45 educational institutions. On July 26, 4 people were killed and over 100 injured at a rally in Chittagong when forces of Jamaat-e-Islami clashed with supporters of the All Party Students Unity.
There were no reports of disappearances resulting from government actions.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the Constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, police systematically employ psychological and physical torture and other abuse during arrests and interrogations. Torture may consist of threats, beatings, and, occasionally, the use of electric shock. On November 27, the police reportedly beat to death a 21-year-old male detainee; but official sources alleged that the man died of cardiac arrest. The Goverment has ordered a second autopsy and an investigation is under way. In the past, some police officers have been suspended for abusing detainees. Nonetheless, a climate of impunity remains a major obstacle to ending torture and abuse. Most prisons are overcrowded and lack adequate facilities. There are three classes of cells: A, B, and C. Common criminals and low-level political workers are generally held in C cells which often have dirt floors, no furnishings, and poor quality food. The use of restraining devices on prisoners in these cells is common. Prisoners in the C cells reportedly suffer the worst abuses, including beatings or being forced to kneel for long periods. Conditions in B and A cells are markedly better; A cells are reserved for prominent prisoners (including former President Ershad). A government-appointed committee of private citizens monitors prisons monthly but does not release its findings. Former President Ershad is serving a 20-year sentence. In 1992 his supporters filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court asserting that his living conditions were inhumane and that he has been denied proper medical care. The Court has not yet rendered judgment. The Government maintains that Ershad receives competent medical care and that his condition has improved and is satisfactory.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The Government continued to use national security legislation to detain citizens without formal charges, though to a lesser extent than the past. The two most widely used statutes are the Special Powers Act of 1974 (SPA) and the Suppression of Terrorist Offenses Bill of 1992, often called the Antiterrorism Act. The Government allowed the Antiterrorism Act to expire in November, claiming that the law had achieved its purpose. Under the SPA, the Government may detain anyone deemed "a threat to the security of the country" for 30 days. At the end of that time, it must either charge or release the detainee. In practice, detainees are sometimes held for longer periods without charge. If the Government files charges, detainees have 15 days to appeal the detention order to the Home Ministry, which may grant early release. After 6 months, a review panel examines detainees. If the Government adequately defends its detention order, the detainee remains imprisoned; if not, the detainee is released. Detainees are allowed to consult with lawyers while in detention, although usually not until a charge is filed. Detainees may receive visitors, and incommunicado detention is not practiced. From January to September, the authorities detained 1,498 persons under the SPA. As of October, the courts reviewed 1,100 cases and ordered 789 detainees released. The courts upheld the detention orders in the other cases. In the first 9 months of 1994, the authorities arrested 856 persons under the Antiterrorism Act and filed charges in 289 cases. However, the courts adjudicated only 14 cases, 7 of which ended in conviction. Between its inception in 1992 and September 15, the authorities arrested 3,358 persons under the Antiterrorism Act, and filed 1,394 cases. On November 5, the date on which the Antiterrorism Act expired, 489 cases were pending. The Government has introduced legislation to dispose of those cases.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The court system has two levels, the Low Court and the Supreme Court. Both hear civil and criminal cases. Trials are public. The Low Court consists of magistrates, who are part of the administrative branch of government, and session judges, who belong to the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is divided into two sections, the High Court and the Appellate Court. The High Court hears original cases and also reviews cases from the Low Court. The Appellate Court has jurisdiction to hear appeals of judgments, decrees, orders, or sentences of the High Court. Rulings of the Appellate Court are binding on all other courts. The judiciary displays a high degree of independence, especially at the higher levels. It often rules against the Government in criminal, civil, and even politically controversial cases. In one politically sensitive case, an appellate court in June upheld the April 1993 High Court decision to restore the citizenship of Jamaat-E-Islami leader Golam Azam. The Government argued that Azam did not qualify for full citizenship because he allegedly committed or condoned war crimes while fighting on the side of Pakistan during the war of independence. The law provides the accused with the right to be represented by counsel, to review accusatory material, to call witnesses, and to appeal verdicts. In practice, the largely rural, illiterate population does not always understand these rights, nor do the authorities always respect them. There is a system of bail. However, if bail is not granted, the law does not specify a time limit on pretrial detention. State-funded defense attorneys are provided in only a limited number of cases, and there are few legal aid programs to offer financial assistance. The largest problem of the court system is the overwhelming backlog of cases. As of September, over 500,000 cases were pending in criminal and metropolitan courts; in Dhaka alone, approximately 25,000 cases were pending trial. The Government claims that it holds no political prisoners. However, it has arrested some opponents under the SPA for political reasons.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law requires authorities to obtain a judicial warrant before entering a home. However, human rights monitors assert that the police rarely obtain warrants and officers violating the procedure are not punished. In addition, the SPA permits searches without a warrant. Some opposition members and CHT tribal leaders maintain that the intelligence services illegally monitor their telephones and mail. Sheikh Hasina, leader of the opposition Awami League, charged that the Government taps her telephones and has her under surveillance. The Government denied tapping her telephone, but admitted that the "surveillance" was provided for her protection.
g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts
The Shanti Bahini, a tribal group, has waged a low-level conflict in the CHT since the early 1970's to deter Bengali settlers who seek to exploit the Tract's fertile and unpopulated land. Government settlement programs increased the number of Bengali inhabitants in the CHT from 3 percent in 1947 to an estimated 45 percent in 1994. Although the Government prohibits further settlement of the area, some settlers continue to move in. All sides--indigenous tribes, settlers, and security forces--have accused each other of human rights violations. It is difficult to verify facts in specific incidents because government travel restrictions, tight security, difficult terrain, and unsafe conditions created by the insurgency limit access to the area. In November 1993, violence erupted in the remote town of Naniarchar when a tribal group demonstrated for removal of a security checkpoint. A group of Bengali settlers reportedly attacked the demonstrators and other persons in the town and looted and burned tribal homes. At least 27 people were killed and 100 injured before the police and army restored order. At the end of 1994, a government commission which investigated the violence had not issued an official finding. There were no major violent incidents in the CHT in 1994. The Government continued its talks with Shanti Bahini's political wing, the Jana Sanghati Samiti (JSS), and the two sides agreed on December 26 to extend their cease-fire until March 31, 1995, when talks between the two groups are scheduled to resume. The Government also extended the amnesty for insurgents until March 31, 1995. The Government facilitated the return of Chakma members who had fled the conflict in the CHT and sought shelter in refugee camps in India. More than 2,000 refugees had returned by midyear.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides for freedom of speech, expression, and press, subject to "reasonable restrictions" in the interest of security, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, or morality, or to prohibit defamation or incitement to an offense. The Government generally respects freedom of speech, with the exception of perceived criticism of Islam (see below). There are frequent public rallies and speeches in opposition to government policies. Opposition political parties used public rallies as the main venue to express their views after they walked out of the Parliament in early 1994. Newspaper ownership and content are not subject to government restriction. The press, numbering hundreds of daily and weekly publications, is a forum for a wide range of views. The Government seeks to influence newspapers by the placement of advertising. The Information Minister has publicly stated that one criterion for the placement of government advertising is the "objectivity" of a newspaper's reporting. Some editors complain that the Government's use of its advertising budget to punish critical newspapers leads to self-censorship. The Government also owns the only newsprint mill in the country, giving it the power to shut down a newspaper by denying it newsprint. It determines how newsprint is allocated, and, until recently, prohibited its import. Foreign publications are subject to censorship. An issue of Time magazine was banned in January, reportedly for publishing a photo of a model wearing a dress with verses from the Koran embroidered on it. On the other hand, the authorities permitted entry of foreign newspapers carrying editorials critical of the Government's handling of the Taslima Nasreen case (see below). The Government arrested several journalists for "offending the religious sentiments of the people"--a violation of Section 295(a) of the Penal Code. Three editors of the daily Janakantha were arrested for printing a satirical fable mocking Islamic clerics who misinterpret the Koran. One editor was granted bail; the others were imprisoned for several weeks. Their case is still pending. The authorities issued warrants for the arrest of a reporter and editor of Ajke Kagoj and sued the editor for publishing an article critical of the Jamaat-i-Islami, an Islamist political party. Two editors were threatened with legal action. In one case the editor of Bangla Bazaar Patrika, Motiur Rahman Chowdhury, wrote a story about the alleged involvement of Special Advisor to the Prime Minister Morshed Khan in a banking scandal. Khan brought a case against Chowdhury, who was arrested and released on bail. The case has not yet come to trial. In the second case, the editor of Ajker Kagoj, Kazi Shahed Ahmed, wrote stories on the alleged role of leaders of the Jamaat-i-Islami Party as collaborators with the Pakistanis during Bangladesh's 1971 war for independence. Charges brought by Jamaat partisans resulted in warrants for Ahmed's arrest. He surrendered to the court and was granted bail. The case remains in the court system. Several media organizations and bookstores were attacked with stones and Molotov cocktails by groups of Islamic fundamentalists because they were allegedly "against religion." The Information Minister condemned the attacks, but the Government took no legal action against the instigators. Some fundamentalist groups threatened a number of journalists, set fire to newspaper offices, intimidated newspaper sellers, and offered rewards for the murder of well-known writers and editors. The Government did not fully investigate such incidents and failed to prosecute the perpetrators. In May, while visiting India, author Taslima Nasreen became the target of Islamists' ire after the Indian newspaper, The Statesman, quoted her as saying that the Koran should be revised. Nasreen had gained prominence in 1993 when the Government banned her book "Lajjya" ("Shame"), a fictional account of atrocities committed against a Hindu family by Muslim neighbors, for inciting communal misunderstanding and violence. After The Statesman interview, Nasreen claimed that she had stated only that Islamic law should be changed to improve the lot of women, and that the Koran was "out of place and out of time"--rather than in need of revision. Nonetheless, Nasreen became the object of death threats and protests staged by fundamentalist groups. In June the Government issued a warrant for her arrest, citing the section of the Penal Code which stipulates punishment of anyone who intentionally insults religious beliefs. As a result of the arrest warrant and death threats, Nasreen went into hiding. International media, human rights groups, and foreign governments criticized the Government for failing to take action against those calling--and offering money--for Nasreen's death. The Government finally warned the public against making death threats. On August 3, Nasreen appeared under heavy guard before the High Court which granted her bail and police protection. Following a court order voiding her arrest warrant, Nasreen departed Bangladesh on August 9 for Sweden and did not return to Bangladesh in 1994. Nasreen's trial continues, although in January 1995 the High Court ruled that the Government must provide a special sanction for the charges because Nasreen's acts allegedly took place in a foreign country. The Government has not yet responded to this order. By law, Nasreen may be tried in absentia. The Government owns and controls all the broadcast media which provide more favorable coverage of the Government than of the opposition. This was particularly true of government television's very slanted coverage of January mayoral elections in Dhaka and three other major cities. The availability of Cable News Network (CNN) and the British Broadcasting Company's (BBC) international news and features for several hours a day on government television has considerably increased the public's access to international news. The Government's film censor board continues to exercise control over films. In May it banned a locally produced documentary on Chinese prodemocracy movements because the film would injure the "susceptibilities of foreign nations."
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for the right of every citizen to form associations, subject to "reasonable restrictions" in the interest of morality or public order. In practice, individuals are free to join private groups, but a local magistrate must approve public meetings. Occasionally, the Government prohibits rallies for security reasons. The Government frequently interferes with opposition rallies and public meetings. Police in Dhaka broke up a planned Jatiyo Party rally on August 23 on the grounds that the organizers did not have a permit. Government officials also often cite a statute which allows public assemblies to be prohibited--to prevent possible violence--if two or more parties have scheduled rallies for the same time and place. Opposition leaders claim that the ruling party, after learning of planned opposition public gatherings, frequently schedules other rallies for the same time and place. Government authorities then cancel both events, effectively thwarting the opposition's right to free public assembly. The Government and the opposition in October entered into a political dialog in which one agenda item was agreement on a code of conduct that would address issues such as public assemblies. The dialog failed when the opposition refused to compromise on its demand for a caretaker government to supervise the next national elections.
c. Freedom of Religion
Approximately 90 percent of Bangladesh's 122 million people are Muslim. The Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but also stipulates the right to practice the religion of one's choice. However, some members of the Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist minorities believe the establishment of Islam has led to hostility toward them and increased religious tension (see Section 5). The law permits citizens to proselytize. However, strong social resistance to conversion from Islam means that much of the non-Muslim missionary effort is aimed at Hindus and tribal groups. The Government allows various religions to establish places of worship, train clergy, travel for religious purposes, and maintain links with coreligionists abroad. Foreign missionaries may work in Bangladesh, but their right to proselytize is not protected by the Constitution. Some missionaries have encountered difficulties in obtaining residence permits or reentry visas from the Government.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Except for certain areas within the CHT, citizens are able to move freely within the country. Travel by foreigners is also restricted in the CHT and some other border areas. Bangladeshis are generally free to travel abroad and emigrate. In some instances the Government prohibits persons considered to be security risks from traveling abroad. The right of repatriation is observed. Approximately 250,000 Rohingyas (Muslims from Burma's Arakan province) crossed into southeastern Bangladesh in late 1991 and early 1992, fleeing Burmese repression. Approximately 120,000 Rohingyas remain in 17 camps in the area of Cox's Bazar. Camp security officials subjected refugees in the camps to intimidation and physical abuse in attempts to coerce the Rohingyas to return to Burma. The Government took substantial steps to curb these abuses in mid-1994 at the urging of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and some foreign governments. Efforts to repatriate the refugees gained momentum due to a new willingness of the Burma Government during the second half of 1994 to accept the refugees. In November alone, almost 20,000 refugees were repatriated and the UNHCR indicated it hopes to continue to repatriate about 5,000 refugees per week. There are about 238,000 non-Bengali Muslims, known as Biharis, who remain in Bangladesh pending resettlement to Pakistan (see Pakistan report).
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Bangladesh is a multiparty, parliamentary democracy in which elections by secret ballot are held on the basis of universal suffrage. Members of Parliament are elected at least every 5 years. The Parliament has 300 elected members, with 30 additional seats reserved for women who are chosen by Parliament. Women are free to contest any seat in Parliament, and some were elected in their own right in the last national election, so there are more than 30 women members. While seats are not specifically reserved for them, other minority groups, such as tribal peoples, are represented in the legislature. In the current Parliament there are 12 members from minority groups out of a total of 330. The last national elections were held in 1991 after the fall of the government of H. R. Ershad. The BNP won a plurality of seats. It cooperated with the Jamaat-i-Islami party to elect enough women legislators to give the BNP a slim majority and enable it to form a government. The opposition is led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her Awami League party. While there are a large number of minor parties, the most significant opposition parties are the Awami League, the Jatiyo Party (former President Ershad's party), and the Jamaat-i-Islami, the major Islamic political party which holds 20 seats. The Awami League and other opposition groups charged the BNP with intimidation and vote-rigging in a parliamentary by-election in the district of Magura, which the BNP won. They began a boycott of Parliament and have tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to force the Government to resign in favor of a caretaker government, which would oversee new elections. The opposition Members of Parliament resigned en masse on December 28.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The Government generally permits human rights groups to conduct their activities. In 1994 such groups published reports, held press conferences, and issued appeals to the Government in regard to specific cases. The Government is sensitive to international opinion regarding human rights issues. It sought to defend its handling of the Taslima Nasreen case but was open to dialog with international organizations and foreign diplomatic missions. The Government has put pressure on individual human rights advocates. The Government did not issue a reentry visa to Father Richard Timm, a Catholic priest and human rights advocate who has worked in Bangladesh for over 40 years. Father Timm had applied for the visa to travel abroad for needed medical care. Government sources indicated that they are still considering Father Timm's case, but the Government has taken no action for over a year. In a similar case, the Government took no action on the application for a visa extension by Father Eugene Homrich, a long time resident American priest. This appears to be a result of his activities in the Madhupur Forest region, where he works to promote the rights of the Garos, a minority group. The Government continues to deny registration to the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission's Treatment Center for Trauma Victims, making it impossible for the center to receive funds from foreign donor organizations. Many representatives of local human rights groups were physically attacked by religious extremists who considered their activities "un-Islamic." The Government failed to bring to justice those who engaged in such violence.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution states that "all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection by the law." In practice, laws aimed at eliminating discrimination are not strongly enforced. In this context, women, children, minority groups, and the disabled often confront social and economic disadvantages.
Although there has been slow improvement over the last few years, women remain in a subordinate position in Bangladesh society, and the Government has not acted to protect their basic freedoms. Only 20 percent of women are literate, compared to 35 to 40 percent of the general population. In rural areas, only 30 percent of primary school students are female; less than 25 percent at the secondary level, and below 15 percent at the college and university level. Women are often unaware of their rights owing to high illiteracy rates and unequal educational opportunities. Strong social stigmas and lack of economic means to obtain legal assistance frequently keep women from seeking redress in the courts. According to the 1961 Muslim Family Ordinance, female heirs receive less inheritance than male heirs, and wives are more restricted in divorce rights. Men are permitted to have up to four wives. While job growth opportunities have been stronger for women than for men in the past few years, this is almost entirely due to the growth of the garment industry, in which female workers are prevalent. Women still occupy only a small fraction of other wage-earning jobs, and hold fewer than 5 percent of government jobs. The Government's policy to include more women in government jobs has had limited effect. Violence against women is difficult to quantify because of unreliable statistics, but observers say that wife beating is widespread. In 1994 human rights groups and the press reported many incidents of violence against women, in only some of which the perpetrators were reportedly prosecuted. In villages vigilante groups meted out humiliating, painful punishments, including whipping, to women accused of moral offenses. The Government has enacted laws specifically prohibiting certain forms of discrimination against women, including the Antidowry Prohibition Act of 1980 and the Cruelty to Women Law of 1983. Enforcement of these laws is weak, especially in rural areas. The Government seldom prosecutes vigorously those cases that are filed.
The Government undertakes programs in the areas of primary education, health, family planning, and nutrition. The Government made universal primary education mandatory in 1991, but stated that it could not fully implement the law because of a lack of resources. Little progress was made in 1994. Human rights monitors continue to report that many children have been abandoned, kidnaped, sold into bondage, and employed as prostitutes. One human rights group claims that there are about 29,000 child prostitutes. The law does not allow anyone under 18 to engage in prostitution, and stipulates a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for persons found guilty of forcing a child into prostitution. However, procurers of minors are rarely prosecuted.
Tribal peoples, especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, have a marginal ability to influence decisions concerning the use of their lands. Until 1985 the Government regularly parceled out the land in the Chittagong Hills to Bengali settlers. The Government has moved toward granting the tribal peoples more authority in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In July 1991, tribal-dominated local government councils assumed control over primary education, health, family welfare and the agricultural extension service. However, government security forces continue to control law and order as well as land use (see also Section 1.g.). Tribal peoples in other areas have also reported loss of land to Bengali Muslims through questionable legal practices and other means. For example, the Garo people, who live in the Madhapur Forest region in north central Bangladesh, have encountered problems in trying to maintain their cultural traditions and livelihoods in the face of reforestation projects in. Human rights monitors in the region claim that the Garos are being harassed and intimidated into leaving their homes to make way for these government-run, internationally financed projects.
Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists make up an estimated 10 percent of the population. Although the Government is secular, religion exerts a powerful influence on politics. The Government is sensitive to the Muslim consciousness of the majority of its citizens and has sought the political support of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the country's large Islamic political party. Throughout the country, Islamic extremists violently attacked women, religious minorities, journalists, writers, and development workers. The Government failed to denounce, investigate, and prosecute perpetrators of these attacks. Among the most serious attacks were those carried out against nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) accused of conducting anti-Islamic activities. Some of the violence against NGO's was prompted when Islamic religious leaders claimed that NGO's denigrated Islam and coerced Muslims to convert to Christianity. Religious minorities are in practice disadvantaged in such areas as access to government jobs and political office. Selection boards in the government services are often without minority group representation. Property ownership, particularly among Hindus, has been a contentious issue since independence, when many Hindus lost landholdings because of anti-Hindu discrimination in the application of the law. Reported cases of violence directed against religious minority communities has also resulted in the loss of property--most recently in December 1992 after Hindus in India destroyed the Babri mosque. Such intercommunal violence has caused some members of religious minority groups to depart the country. However, there were no significant instances of intercommunal violence in 1994.
People with Disabilities
The laws provide for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for the disabled. The Government has not enacted specific legislation or otherwise mandated accessibility for the disabled.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Constitution guarantees freedom of association, the right to join unions, and, with government approval, the right to form a union. With the exception of workers in the railway, postal, telegraph, and telephone departments, the law forbids government civil servants to join unions. This ban also applies to security-related government employees such as the military and police. Civil servants forbidden to join unions, such as teachers, doctors, and nurses, have formed associations that perform functions similar to labor unions. Approximately 1.6 million members of the country's total work force of about 45 to 50 million workers belong to unions. For a union to obtain and maintain its registration, 30 percent employee participation is required. Registration of a union may only be canceled by the registrar of trade unions with the concurrence of the Labor Court. There are no restrictions on affiliation with international labor organizations, and Bangladeshi unions and federations maintain a variety of such links. Ten to 15 percent of Bangladesh's approximately 4,200 labor unions are affiliated with 23 officially registered National Trade Union (NTU) centers. There is no legal restriction on political activity by labor unions. Unions are independent of the Government. They are highly politicized, and virtually all NTU centers are affiliated with political parties. The law does not specifically recognize the right to strike, but strikes are common. The Government prohibits nationwide general strikes. Participation in such a strike is a criminal offense. Nonetheless, the political opposition continues to use general strikes to pressure the Government on political demands. The Essential Services Ordinance permits the Government to bar strikes for 3 months in any sector regarded as "essential." The Government has applied this ban to national airline pilots, water supply workers, shipping operations employees, and electricity supply workers. The Government renews such bans every 3 months. The Government may prohibit a strike before it begins and refer the dispute to the Labor Court. The Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969 established mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and labor dispute resolution. Workers have the right to strike in the event of a failure to achieve a settlement. Strikers participating in a legal strike are protected from retribution under the law. In practice this protection has not always proven effective.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
Collective bargaining is legal only for private sector workers, on the condition that they are represented by unions legally registered as collective bargaining agents. Collective bargaining generally does not occur in small private enterprises. The National Pay and Wages Commission recommends public sector workers' pay levels and other benefits. Under the Industrial Relations Ordinance, there is considerable leeway for discrimination against union members and organizers by employers. The Ordinance does not prohibit employers from transferring workers suspected of union activities. Complaints that employers routinely engage in antiunion discrimination are particularly high in the garment industry. In several cases the Labor Court has ordered the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. However, the Labor Court's overall effectiveness is hampered by a serious case backlog and allegations of corruption. Current law prohibits unions in the two export processing zones (EPZ's). A small number of workers in the EPZ's have skirted prohibitions on unions by setting up worker associations. The Government has stated that restrictions on the establishment of unions in the EPZ's will be lifted by 1997. So far, no action toward this end has been taken. In the garment industry, there have been complaints of workers being harassed and fired in some factories for trying to organize unions.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor. The Factories Act and Shops and Establishment Act, both passed in 1965, established inspection mechanisms to enforce laws against forced labor. These laws are not rigorously enforced. There is forced labor to the extent that workers are often required to work longer hours than stipulated by law, with no special compensation. This is often the case in the garment industry.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The Factories Act of 1965 bars children under the age of 15 from working in factories. This law stipulates that young workers are only allowed to work a maximum 5-hour day and only between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The Government does not adequately enforce these rules. According to U.N. estimates, about one-third of the population under the age of 18 is employed. Children routinely perform domestic work. Cases of children being physically abused and occasionally killed by heads of household where they work are reported in the press. Employers discharged thousands of underage workers employed in Bangladesh's garment industry in 1993-94. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has pledged to eliminate all child workers from its member factories and is cooperating with the Government, the International Labor Organization, and NGO's to achieve this goal.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
There is no national minimum wage. The Wages Commission sets wages industry by industry. In most cases, private sector employers ignore this wage structure. In 1993 the Confederation of Labor Unions won a minimum wage agreement for public sector factory workers that was slightly above the level recommended by the Wages Commission. According to the agreement, government factory workers receive about $24 (950 taka) a month plus benefits. Private sector wages tend to fall below the government wage and benefits package. The average monthly wage is sufficient to provide bare necessities. The law sets a standard 48-hour workweek with 1 rest day each week. A 60-hour workweek, inclusive of a maximum 12 hours of overtime, is allowed. The law is poorly enforced. The Factories Act of 1965 nominally sets occupational health and safety standards. The law is comprehensive, but many employers ignore it. Workers rarely resort to legal action to enforce the law. Enforcement by the Labor Ministry's industrial inspectorate is weak. Because unemployment is high and the Government does not adequately enforce health and safety standards, most workers do not excuse themselves from performing hazardous tasks for fear of losing their jobs.