ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 182
Even though Bangladesh lifted its two-year-old state of emergency in December of 2008, labour unrest and repression of trade unions continued during 2009. Working conditions in the garment and ship-breaking industries remained appalling. The global economic crisis hit garment workers especially hard. In addition, unions still face difficulties when registering as well as when carrying out legitimate trade union activities.
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 2009
Background: With the lifting of the state of emergency, it was hoped that the situation for the Bangladesh trade union movement and that economic conditions for workers would improve. However, Bangladesh workers faced the same problems that existed under the state of emergency. Employers paid wages late, if paid at all, and numerous factories closed with no notice and without paying workers wages due. The Bangladesh Factory Inspection Department released a survey on 29 June that revealed that 122 of the 825 factories surveyed, i.e. almost 15%, did not pay their employees on time between January and May. Another 53 did not pay overtime, and eight factories paid less than the government's minimum wage of 1662.50 taka (24 US dollars) per month. Most workers only get 800 to 950 taka (13 to 15 US dollars) per month, the lowest wages for garment workers in the world. The garment industry accounts for about 80% of Bangladesh's export trade and around 40% of its total industrial workforce. Industry leaders say wages have been cut by 20 to 30% in recent months in a country where almost half the population is already living below the poverty line.
Labour unrest in the garment sector: The garment sector remained the primary source of labour unrest and worker exploitation. Six workers died during protests in the garment sector. On 21 July, the parliamentary committee on the Labour and Employment Ministry placed a set of recommendations including setting up intelligence units in every industrial area to minimise labour unrest in the garment sector. The committee found that the failure of garment factories to implement the minimum wage board set for garment workers and the lack of labour unions were the key reasons for the unrest.
Child labour in ship-breaking sector: Bangladesh ship-breaking yards are reported to have profited from the use of child labour and unsafe working conditions. A report released on 29 January, entitled "Childbreaking Yards: Child Labour in the Ship Recycling Industry in Bangladesh", stated that one quarter of the workers in the ship-recycling industry in Bangladesh are children: 10% of the workers are under 12 years old; 15-20% are under the age of 15; and 25% are younger than 18 years old. On 22 October, the Bangladesh Metalworkers' League (BML) and the IMF called for an end to barbaric deaths in the ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh after seven workers died in one week.
Striking garment workers injured by police, six died: For several days in June, 1,800 workers at the S Suhi Industrial Park Ltd (Pretty Group) sweater factory at Jamgara in Ashulia went on strike for a pay increase and settlement of outstanding wages. Management finally agreed to the workers' demands on 25 June. However, on returning to work on 27 June, the company sacked three workers, Manju, Liton and Abu Bakkar, who had led the strike and the negotiations with the company. In response, the workers went on strike again and demonstrated outside the factory to demand the reinstatement of the three workers. Company security personnel opened fire on the demonstrating workers. Two workers were shot and one, Al-Amin, 26, was killed. Twenty-five other workers were injured. On 28 June, 50,000 garment workers demonstrated over the death of Al-Amin. Two more workers were killed and scores were injured when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the demonstrators.
On 31 October, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at 10,000 workers from Nippon Garment in Tongi north of Dhaka who demonstrated over unpaid wages. Two persons, Bablu Sheikh (32) and Shafique, died on the spot, whilst 100 others were injured in the incident. Twelve persons with gun shot wounds were rushed to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital while others were taken to local hospitals and clinics. Tajul Islam, 50, who was admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital with head injuries, died on 1 November. In another event, at least 30 workers were injured on 9 June when company thugs from Rahim-Aziz Sweater factory in the Fatullah industrial area in Bholail, Narayanganj, attacked 400-500 factory workers who had engaged in a work stoppage over the late payment of wages.
Union officials arrested for allegedly leading a wildcat strike: On 29 April, in Chittagong, police arrested Chittagong Metropolitan Auto-rickshaw, Auto-tempo and CNG Workers Welfare Union President, Kamal Uddin, General Secretary Harun-ur-Rashid, and union members Solaiman, Golam Mostafa, Bashir and Motaleb in connection with their alleged involvement in leading a wildcat strike on 27 April. Police are reportedly also looking for Abu Taher Khan, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Workers Welfare Federation. On 27 April, over 6,000 auto-rickshaw and auto-tempo drivers had gone on strike to demand an end to police harassment. The outcome of the arrests was unknown at the end of the year.
Union leader arrested on fabricated charges: On 19 May, police arrested the Pabna District Motor Workers Union Vice-president Shamsur Rahman Swapan on trumped-up charges of making fake driver's licences. On 20 May, members of the Pabna District Motor Workers Union in Pabna went on strike to demand his release. The disposition of this case was unknown by the end of the year.
Unionists charged for demonstrating: On 6 July, the High Court directed 14 labour leaders and workers to surrender before the trial court within eight weeks in connection with a case filed against them following recent demonstrations at the garment factories in Ashulia. Industries Minister Dilip Barua said that a certain group had created the labour unrest in garment factories in Ashulia to destabilise the country. Those charged include the Bangladesh Garment Sramik Trade Union Kendra (Bangladesh Garment Workers' Trade Union Centre – GWTUC) adviser and advocate Mantu Kumar Ghosh, its president Idris Ali, its general secretary KM Ruhul Amin, and its office secretary Joly Talukder.
Union's office occupied: On 9 December, over 200 tea garden labourers formed a human chain and held a rally in front of the Sylhet Central Shaheed minar in Sylhet City to protest the illegal occupation of the office of the Central Union of Tea Garden Workers. The tea labour leaders claimed that a local gang, with the blessing of some ruling party men, illegally occupied the office on 25 November.
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