Bangladesh workers still fighting exploitation despite 2013 Accord

GPEU general secretary SHAFIQUR RAHMAN MASUD addressing a mass meeting

IN 2013, foreign brands and unions signed an Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and although workers  who need to complain against poor working conditions now trust more in the system, women are still harassed, and workers laid off arbitrarily or pressured to increase production.

Working conditions have improved somewhat in Bangladesh’s garment industry since 2013. Following the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex, hundreds of firms signed an agreement to boost employee protection and safety regulations.

Despite real improvements, there are still many shortcomings in terms of labour relations and control. In fact, unions this week released a report that shows there were 662 complaints filed in 2018 – the highest in a single year.

This is evidence that the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is working and workers trust the system more than in the past. However, since the Agreement came into force in 2014, some 1,152 complaints have been filed.

One worker, Siddikur Ramaman, spoke to AsiaNews about safety conditions and the improvements implemented since 2013.

‘In the past,’ he explained, ‘there were no emergency exits in plants; now many have them. Almost all the factories have equipment to extinguish fires.’ Still, ‘employers can use mental pressure and harassment.’

Siddik, who works in the Mahakhali industrial zone, agreed. ‘Foreign brands and local business owners think only of making money and not of the well-being of us workers.

‘There are three players in this game: workers, employers and trade unions. If the benefits were for everyone, we would all be winners.’

Rashada Beguem, who works in the Uttara area, said: ‘The Agreement was stipulated for our safety – but I have never seen a single inspector in my plant.

‘My employer does not care about our conditions; he pays salaries late.’

What is more, ‘women are sexually harassed. For the owner, we are of no importance; he just wants to boost production and use us as machines.’

Julhasnaueen Babu, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Union, points the finger at NGOs who work with employees but are paid by the owners. The data they report are often incomplete.

‘Many workers come to us to complain that they have been fired without prior notice or that the factory closed without warning.’

Bangladesh’s manufacturing sector recently lost 11,000 jobs.

Employers blame higher wages, and have put pressure on the workers to increase production.

  • Leaders of the newly recognised trade union GPEU (GrameenPhone Employees Union) on Saturday said that they would work for the welfare of employees in Bangladesh’s telecommunication sector.

While speaking at a news conference at Dhaka Reporters Unity auditorium in the capital, they pledged their commitment to work with all other trade unions across the country.

‘We have no intention of creating resistance against foreign investment; rather we want to contribute to the socio-economic development of the country,’ said the union’s general secretary Shafiqur Rahman Masud in a statement to the conference.

He said that the union would assist the government in implementing all development projects.

He also said that they would work to protect and realise the lawful rights of the employees and workers across the country.

‘Around sixty million people are working in different sectors across the country. It is regrettable that they are divided in factions,’ said GPEU president Fazlul Haque.

He called on all trade organisations throughout Bangladesh to work together for the betterment of the workers.

Banglalink Employees Union president Golam Mahmud Sohag, GPEU communication secretary Md Rafiqul Kabir Saikat, and US Solidarity Centre deputy country programme director Kelly M Fay Rodríguez, also attended the programme, among others.

The union was formed after the GrameenPhone authorities sacked some of their employees in 2012 and since then it has been seeking recognition from the Labour Department, the statement said.

It eventually won recognition on March 7th 2019, after a seven-year legal battle.

  • The government has formed a wage board to review the minimum wages of workers in the rice mill sector, by including an owners’ representative from a little-known association.

On March 6th, the Labour Ministry issued a gazette notification appointing Khorshed Alam Khan and Mahbub Bin Saif as representatives from the owners and workers respectively.

Owners’ representative to the wage board, Khorshed Alam, is the president of Bangladesh Auto Rice Mill Owner’s Association which has only a few members, said sector leaders.

When Khorshed was asked about his representation on the wage board, he told ‘New Age’ that he had no knowledge that the government had included him in the wage board. ‘I am hearing this from you (New Age) for the first time,’ he said.

K M Layek Ali, secretary of Bangladesh Auto Major and Husking Mill Owners Association, which is one of the largest associations, said that Khorshed had no right to represent the rice mill owners as his organisation has only a few members.

‘The government knows we are the leading association in the sector and most of the rice mills are our members. So it is a puzzle how the ministry has appointed him (Khorshed) as the owners’ representative to the wage board,’ he said.

Layek Ali also said that Khorshed’s rice mills have been shut down for the last four to five years because he hadn’t paid his electricity bills.

But Khorshed claims that that his mill has only been closed for one year because the machinery is being upgraded and it would be operational soon.

‘The information of the default of electricity bill is not true and it is nothing but propaganda against me,’ he said.

The workers’ representative to the wage board, Mahbub, is the adviser to the Chenchua Baghmara Bazar Rice Mill Workers Union in Mymenshing.

As per the Labour Act, the minimum wages for a sector have to be reviewed every five years.

The minimum wages for the rice mill sector workers were last set seven years ago, in 2012, at a minimum monthly pay of Tk 5,520.

Replying to a question, Khorshed admitted that he did not know when the last wage board for the rice mills workers met, or what the amount of minimum pay was.

Layek Ali said that there are some 17,000 registered rice mills across the country including 550 auto mills.

He said that more than eight hundred thousand workers, including 2.5 hundred thousand women, work in the sector.