Bangladeshi workers suffer from lack of legal rights to organise!

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The Rana Plaza building collapse in April last year killed over 1,100 workers
The Rana Plaza building collapse in April last year killed over 1,100 workers

The government must take steps to reform laws so they meet international standards for freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, said A K M Nasim, senior legal counselor at the Solidarity Centre’s office in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital.

Further, ‘If we have any half-hearted reform in the legislation, it will mean that the workers will have to continue their struggle for a period of at least a generation to achieve these fundamental rights.’

Speaking at a recent forum in Washington, DC, Nasim gave an overview of the current labour rights environment for Bangladeshis and provided key recommendations for improving their wages and working conditions.

Some 377,600 workers, the vast majority women, work in eight export-processing zones (EPZs) throughout the country.

Bangladesh derives 20 per cent of its income from exports created in the EPZs, which are industrial areas that offer special incentives to foreign investors like low taxes, lax environmental regulations and low labour costs.

Yet while workers outside the EPZs are permitted to form trade unions, EPZ workers must form weaker workers’ welfare associations.

Even though the associations have the right to bargain and negotiate agreements with employers, in practice, employers do not let the workers form their associations easily.

Leaders of workers’ associations who actively promote the interests of the employees ‘have been fired from their jobs,’ Nasim said. ‘As a result, most of the workers’ associations in the EPZs remain in existence only on paper.’

Nasim discussed the decision last June by the US government to suspend Bangladesh’s trade benefits based on the country’s chronic and severe labour rights violations.

The United States suspended its Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) agreement with Bangladesh after 112 workers were killed in a 2012 fire at the Tazreen garment factory, and more than 1,100 died last April when the Rana Plaza building collapsed.

Since the GSP suspension, the Bangladesh government has allowed some 100 unions to register, in contrast with the few unions recognised prior to last year.

The Rana Plaza disaster also led to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year binding agreement between international labour organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and retailers in the textile industry to maintain minimum safety standards.

The tragedies also have generated an increase in NGO involvement, and Nasim urged the NGOs working to improve workplace safety and health to support workers in forming and running unions, and making sure they are sustainable in the long run.

Also speaking at the forum, Solidarity Centre Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan showed how the economic and political intersect in the Bangladesh context as described by Nasim.

‘Bangladesh is a crucible for the intersection of globalisation, the government’s economic policies, how these impact on the development of a democratic culture in civil society, and equitable and just economic growth that benefits workers and their families,’ Ryan said.

‘A voice for workers in this process is absolutely crucial for growing democratic organisations in Bangladesh.’

The forum, ‘Strengthening Democratic Practices in Bangladesh: Empowering Workers in Export Processing Zones,’ was sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy and included Zerxes Spencer from the International Forum for Democratic Studies as moderator.

l Meanwhile, female labourers in Rangpur district are being deprived of equal rights as they get much less wages than their male counterparts for the same sort of work.

A good number of women in the region work in crop fields, brick kilns, husking mills, restaurants, factories, tobacco processing centres, hotels and construction sites and are also engaged in earth cutting, stone chips and breaking brick as day labourers. But all of them are given less wages than male labourers.

While visiting many areas in different upazilas (regional divisions) under the district, one correspondent recently found that a male labourer is paid Tk 150 to Tk 250 after rendering day-long services, while a female labourer gets Tk 75 to Tk 120 for the same volume and type of work.

Asked about the reason for such wage inequality, Motin Miah, a land owner of Fulchouki area at Mithapukur Upazila, said, ‘Though the female workers are more honest in their work than the male workers, they get less wage, as the male labourers are able to carry more workload than the females.’

Some female day labourers who are victim of discrimination narrated the pathetic stories of their frustration and deprivation at workplaces.

Kajoli (45), a female worker at a tobacco leaf processing centre under British Amerian Tobacco Company Bangladesh Ltd in Gangarchhara Upazila in the district told The Financial Express she works at least 8 to 9 hours a day but gets only Tk 75 whereas a male worker gets Tk 150 for the same amount and type of work.

They often fall sick due to toxic dust of tobacco. Many of them are suffering from various respiratory diseases, said some workers of the tobacco processing centre.

A number of female labourers alleged if they claim wages as much as their male counterparts get, the employers become reluctant to engage them in work next time. For this reason they are compelled to receive much lower wages, they added.

• Safety experts hired by Western retailers such as H&M and Benetton will begin a mass inspection of clothing factories in Bangladesh, nearly a year after 1,135 garment workers died in a building collapse.

Dozens of fire officers and structural engineers will begin inspecting more than 1,500 plants and then recommend safety improvements in an exercise that is expected to last until September.

Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest clothing manufacturer and the sector is the mainstay of the impoverished South Asian nation’s economy.

But the sector has a woeful safety track record, which was highlighted in November 2012 by a fire at the Tazreen factory in Dhaka when 111 workers were killed, many of whom were unable to escape due to a lack of proper fire exits.

Less than six months later, 1,135 people were killed when the nine-storey Rana Plaza complex collapsed on the outskirts of the capital in Bangladesh’s deadliest industrial disaster.

Experts say the complex – which was only licensed for four storeys – crumbled as it had been constructed with sub-standard materials and without proper surveys of the site.

Bosses had also set up huge generators on the ceiling, which triggered the collapse when they all automatically clicked on following a power cut.

Spanish fashion chain Mango, Britain’s Primark, Italy’s Benetton, Sweden’s H&M and the sports brand Adidas were among the host of big Western brands to sign up to an accord in the aftermath of the disaster in which they agreed to bankroll the safety inspections and loan the money for upgrades.

‘All four engineering teams are here,’ said Rob Wayss, one of the managers overseeing the inspections.

‘They will start factory inspection from Wednesday and complete their job by September this year,’ he told AFP.

The brands signed the legally-binding accord several weeks after the April 24 disaster, following widespread accusations that they had been turning a blind eye to shoddy safety standards in a country where textile workers had been paid as little as 38 dollars a month.

That basic wage has since risen by 77 per cent and garment bosses worry that they will lose their competitive edge if they now have to pick up the tab as well for extensive safety improvements.

Few factories, some of which employ tens of thousands of people, have even the most basic safety equipment such as sprinklers or fire escapes on every floor.

The latest inspection drive is the biggest ever undertaken by any government, international agency or retailer, according to Wayss.

However, observers say the biggest obstacle to improving standards is the lack of enforcement by officials who are often prepared to sign safety certificates for cash.

Some major US retailers, including Walmart, held back from signing the accord in May but they have drawn up their own separate agreement to inspect several hundred factories with their own experts.

Wayss said the engineers would identify safety problems in the factories, draw up recommendations to improve safety and set a deadline for the owners to implement the necessary measures.

‘The timeline will depend on the nature of the safety problems,’ he said, adding the retailers would loan their contract manufacturers the money needed to carry out the upgrades if they could not immediately afford the work themselves.

Despite the promises of a loan, some bosses are unhappy at having to carry out what they describe as ‘unnecessary and costly’ improvements.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association says the industry needs more time, especially if they have to shift factories out of buildings which were constructed mainly for residential purposes.

‘Sprinklers, fire-proof doors and new electric wires raise cost of production to the extent that some factories won’t be able to operate anymore,’ said the association’s vice-president Shahidullah Azim.

Wayss however ruled out any suggestion of a compromise on safety issues, saying that all factories would have to install sprinklers and fire doors.

Bangladesh is the world’s biggest clothing exporter after China and has around 4,500 garment factories. The industry generates around $22 billion, making it by far the biggest earner for the government.