Labour and labour rights issues seem to be a major concern area for the Bangladesh garment industry so much so that one of its major trading partners, the European Union, has recently linked Bangladesh’ future trade prospects with the labour rights status in the country.
A statement issued recently by the European Union (EU)-Bangladesh Joint Commission after the end of the 9th Session of the European Union (EU)-Bangladesh Joint Commission meeting also called for developing a roadmap on strengthening labour and human rights in the country.
It may be mentioned here that EU is a major export destination for Bangladesh, especially readymade apparels, where it enjoys preferential trade benefit, Generalised System of Preference (GSP), under the Everything but Arms (EBA) regime being a least developed nation (LDC).
The scheme will phase out in 2027.
However, Bangladesh is thriving to graduate from LDC to middle income status in 2024, after which to get such a facility (GSP Plus), Bangladesh requires compliance and ratification of some 27 core international conventions. “In this context, it was recalled that EBA preferences as well as any future trade relationship are conditional on the respect of human rights, including labour rights, as reflected in the international conventions listed in the GSP Regulation,” underlined the joint statement.
A vital point raised by EU in all its meetings with Bangladesh has been that of allowing formation of trade unions, especially in the factories located in the export processing zones (EPZs), so that the workers can voice their concerns through an appropriate channel to the concerned authorities. So, what is stopping the Bangladesh Government from allowing trade union formations?
As per former State Minister for Labour and Employment Md. Mujibul Haque Chunnu, workers’ ignorance and pressure from some influential quarters are allegedly not allowing the Government to approve trade unionism in the industrial sectors.
Thereby the main purposes for forming trade unions in industrial sectors mostly remain underserved, Chunnu informed a national seminar on ‘analysing the role of different authorities in industrial dispute settlement and developing comprehensive recommendations’, organised by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies recently.
To drive home his point, the ex-minister cited the instance of a massive labour unrest in December demanding Taka 16,000 as minimum monthly salary, which caused many units to remain closed for nearly a month.
“Interestingly enough, workers of factories which had unions did not take to the streets, demonstrate or carry out vandalism,” Chunnu said while underlining that when he was serving as a state minister, a garment factory owner had put pressure on him in such a manner that he was forced to cancel the permission allowing registration of a factory’s trade union.
Meanwhile, hundreds of applications submitted to the labour ministry by labour leaders for obtaining permissions for unionism were rejected for being faulty or incomplete, said Chunnu.
The workers do not know how to seek permission for unionism properly, he said, adding that sometimes union leaders of factories, abusing power facilitated by unions, enjoy different benefits from factory owners.
“Sometimes, the union leaders lobby with the labour department to obtain permissions for forming unions only to take benefit of their leadership instead of taking up a regular job,” the former state minister said.
To improve the labour scenario in the country, Kamran T. Rahman, Bangladesh Employers’ Federation (BEF), suggested the union leaders and workers not to address employers as owners as such relationship does not help resolve disputes. Actually, it should be a relationship between employers and employees, Kamran maintained.