LONG-AWAITED amendments to Bangladesh’s Labour Act passed by the parliament last week fail to protect workers’ rights to freedom of association, falling well short of international labour standards, says the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

LONG-AWAITED amendments to Bangladesh’s Labour Act passed by the parliament last week fail to protect workers’ rights to freedom of association, falling well short of international labour standards, says the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

An ITUC statement said: ‘These obstacles to organising a union and bargaining collectively with employers will continue to make it exceedingly difficult for workers to negotiate for fair wages and safe and decent conditions.

‘The absence of unions in the vast majority of workplaces has up to now kept wages at poverty levels and has allowed employers to force workers to work in dangerous, even fatal conditions.

‘The Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions disasters have shown how vulnerable workers can be without the protection of strong unions.’

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary said: ‘Bangladesh’s workers and the international community had high expectations that the government would finally legislate to protect the rights of workers.

‘It appears that once again factory owners triumphed over their employees through backroom lobbying and their own political power as members of parliament.

‘While the new law does reflect some positive changes, including on occupational safety and health, the government largely failed to make good on its obligations to improve fundamental workers’ rights.’

The ITUC warned: ‘Entire categories of workers, such as the hundreds of thousands employed in the country’s export processing zones, are still prohibited from forming a union.

‘They are only allowed to form associations, which have little power in practice to improve working conditions in the zones.

‘The government will no longer give employers a list of union activists applying for registration, which was used in the past to target unionists for dismissal.

‘Earlier this year, the government also lifted what was a de facto ban on registering unions in the garment sector and in the last several months has registered roughly 30 unions.

‘This is progress, though questions remain as to whether this will be sustained.

‘Leaders of some of these new unions have already faced anti-union discrimination, including physical assaults, threats and firings for their lawful activity.

‘For years, the government has utterly failed to enforce the labour law.

‘The ITUC calls on the government of Bangladesh to get serious about enforcement, including on anti-union discrimination as well as occupational safety and health.’

Burrow added: ‘The ITUC will continue to keep up and indeed increase the pressure on Bangladesh until workers are able to exercise their fundamental rights at work.

‘We urge all governments, including the US and EU, to do the same.

‘We also call on the government of Bangladesh to immediately initiate a new tri-partite process to draft and adopt the legal reforms that should have been passed this week.’

Amendments to Bangladesh’s labour law still fall far short of protecting worker’s rights and meeting international standards, Human Rights Watch also said.

Bangladesh’s donors and international investors should press the government to make further amendments to the law to fully ensure workers’ rights to form unions, bargain collectively, and participate in workplace decisions on safety, the rights group added.

Under domestic and international pressure, on July 15, 2013, the Bangladeshi parliament enacted changes to the Labour Act. The impetus for a reformed labour rights law sprang from the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in greater Dhaka in April, which killed more than 1,100 garment factory workers.

The Rana Plaza tragedy followed many other workplace tragedies that resulted in large loss of life.

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said: ‘The sad reality is that the government has consciously limited basic workers’ rights while exposing workers to continued risks and exploitation.’

The group noted that the new amendments deal with only some problematic provisions of the existing law, while leaving others untouched.

• At least 30 per cent of the workers in an establishment, which can comprise many factories, would still have to join a union for the government to register it.

• Unions will be allowed to select their leaders only from workers at the establishment. This will enable employers to force out union leaders by firing them for an ostensibly non-union-related reason, a common practice globally. Workers in export processing zones, which cover a large percentage of Bangladesh’s work force, would remain legally unable to form trade unions.

• The amended law adds more sectors, including non-profit education and training facilities, as well as ‘hospitals, clinics and diagnostic centres,’ to a lengthy list of types of employment in which workers are not permitted to form unions.

• The right to strike will remain burdened by a cumbersome bureaucratic process and the requirement that two-thirds of the union’s membership would have to vote for a strike, a small improvement over the previous requirement of three-quarters of the membership.

• The government will be able to stop a strike if it decides it would cause ‘serious hardship to the community’ or is ‘prejudicial to the national interest’, terms that are not defined but can easily be misused.

• Discriminatory anti-strike provisions in the law favour foreign investors by prohibiting strikes in any establishment during the first three years of operation if it is ‘owned by foreigners or is established in collaboration with foreigners.’

•The amended law also seeks to redirect attention to so-called ‘Participation Committees’ and ‘Safety Committees’, largely powerless bodies made up of management and workers. Workers at non-union workplaces would directly elect their representatives to Participation Committees and Safety Committees, which would be created in factories with more than 50 workers. However, the role of these committees is not clearly defined.

Both types of committees fulfil duties that should be handled by a union acting as the duly organised and elected representative of the workers.

Robertson said: ‘The government has not only missed a golden opportunity to get rid of provisions that limit workers’ rights, it has even snuck into the law new and harmful regulations.

‘Even after Rana Plaza, the government still is not fully committed to the protection of workers’ rights and safety.’

The revised Labour Act could also have a major negative impact on unions by expanding government control over unions’ access to foreign funding.

The law would require prior approval from the Labour and Employment Ministry before either trade unions or employer organisations could receive ‘technical, technological, health & safety and financial support’ from international sources.

Robertson noted: ‘By controlling access to foreign funding, the government would have a stranglehold over assistance to unions, just as it has with devastating effect over other nongovernmental groups.

‘Donor countries should reject this unjustified government interference with worker and employer groups.’

The law contains important provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sex and disability, including equal wages for equal work.

However, the revised law includes no measures to tackle sexual harassment of women, who make up the vast majority of workers in the ready-made garment sector, Human Rights Watch said.

In offering amendments to the labour law, the government has missed an important opportunity to carry out 2009 High Court guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace.

The rights group concluded: ‘A major test of the government’s commitment will be implementation of provisions that protect worker safety and the rights to organise and collective bargaining.

‘The ruling Awami League is backed by factory owners and has many members of parliament who own factories.’