|Amid labor unrest and international pressure following profit-driven factory deaths, Bangladesh parliament passed law that bars labor ministry from turning over names of union supporters to bosses, but also includes anti-union provisions. Above, workers from textile company Envoy Group on strike in Dhaka June 10, demand wage raise, back pay and larger lunch allowance.|
To win recognition, unions still need the support of at least 30 percent of the workers at a workplace, but the labor ministry is now barred from the practice of turning over a blacklist of union supporters to the boss.
Leaders of Bangladeshi worker federations say the change is still inadequate and sharply criticized other provisions in the amended law.
On April 24 Rana Plaza, an eight-story building housing five garment factories, shops and a bank in Savar, 20 miles from the capital Dhaka, caved in. In spite of major visible cracks in the wall the day before — prompting evacuation of the bank and shops — garment bosses pressured workers to return to work the next morning. About an hour into the workday the building collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers.
Tens of thousands of workers took to the streets in response. A wave of strikes and other demonstrations demanded arrest of bosses and landlords, compensation to families of workers killed and wage raises in the industry.
Just five months earlier more than 120 workers died in a fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. According to survivors, the exits were locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work and highly flammable stacks of yarn and clothes blocked parts of the stairs.
Bangladesh’s 5,000 garment factories generate 80 percent of the country’s export income. It is today the second biggest exporter of garments after China. Over the last two decades the garment workforce has grown from 1 million to 4 million, the majority women from rural villages.
The law against turning over names to the boss “is not a strong bar,” said Kalpona Akter, a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, in an Aug. 1 phone interview from Dhaka. “Factory owners have ways of getting around this.”
Bribes and collusion play a big part in political life and factory owners have decisive influence in parliament, many point out. To form a union, workers would also need registration from the directorate of labor. In recent years, hardly any registration has been given.
“I have another concern,” Akter said. “Owners can outsource workers to other factories, where unions are not allowed. And if you’re outsourced you can’t belong to a union.”
Unions barred in export zones
Workers in export zones where a large percentage are employed, are still prohibited from forming unions. The law adds more sectors, among them “hospitals, clinics and diagnostic centers,” to the list where unions are not allowed.
To go on strike, two-thirds of the union’s membership would have to vote in favor, a small change from the previous requirement of three-quarters. The government can stop strikes on the pretext that they cause “serious hardship to the community” or are “prejudicial to the national interest.” Strikes are prohibited during the first three years of operation in any factory “owned by foreigners or is established in collaboration with foreigners.”
“Maternity leave is still four months,” said Nazma Akter, a leader of the Bangladesh Combined Garment Workers Federation, in an interview Aug. 2. “We demanded six months as workers in the public sector have. This is very important, women make up the big majority of workers in the industry.”
Kalpona Akter and Nazma Akter said the most important issues for workers in Bangladesh are the fight for safer workplaces, the right to form unions and negotiate a contract, and higher wages.
“A new law doesn’t change anything,” Kalpona Akter said. “We have to keep mobilizing and organizing to put the pressure on.”
Parliament adopted the law three weeks after Washington suspended Bangladesh’s trade preferences, ending the country’s duty-free exports to the U.S. “The decision will have little practical effect because important products such as apparel are excluded,” Stephanie Lester of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a retail lobby group, told the Financial Times June 27.
The European Union has threatened to revoke Bangladesh’s trade privileges. The EU’s duty-free privileges include apparel and EU countries buy 60 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports.
Workers organizing unions in Bangladesh face harassment, intimidation and brutality from the police and company-hired goons.
In the midst of a strike wave in 2010, the government set up a 2,900-strong industrial police force to spy on workers, subvert union organizations and protect the interests and property of the bosses.
Aminul Islam, a union leader, was tortured and killed in April 2012. No one has been charged with his murder.
Kalpona Akter, along with Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garments & Industrial Workers Federation, were imprisoned in August 2010 on frame-up charges for trying to improve the working conditions of garment workers. They were freed on bail a month later.
The government is in the process of dropping the charges. “This comes because of the threat to revoke the trade privileges. The government hopes this will be seen favorably by governments in the U.S. and Europe,” Kalpona Akter said.
Police have reopened an investigation into the Tazreen fire. An earlier investigation blamed “unidentified miscreants,” and no one was charged. Arrests have been made, but no charges filed in connection with the Rana Plaza collapse. No factory owner in Bangladesh has ever been charged with a crime related to an industrial disaster.
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