BANGLADESH has a population of roughly 156 million people and a working age populace, 15 years and above, of 106.3 million, of whom 58 million are working and 2.6 million falls under the definition of being unemployed.
Of the employed populace, 37 per cent (21.5 million) were in the age group of 15–29. The 2013 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics Survey points out that 45 per cent of the employed labour force works in agriculture, 34.1 per cent in services and 20.8 per cent in the industrial sector. It estimates 86.9 per cent of the employed workers to be working in the informal sector.
However, workers in Bangladesh are facing uncomfortable barrier to unionisation. The Human Rights Watch holds the view that the Bangladesh government should urgently remove legal and practical obstacles to unionisation.
A trade union is an organisation of workers who have come together to attain common objectives, for example; shielding the respectability of the trade, upgrading safety standards, achieving higher pay and benefits such as health care and retirement, increasing the number of employees an employer allocates to complete the work, and better working condition.
Trade unions are the regulators of the labour force of an industry which works for the betterment of the trade by making sure that the right of the labour force is protected. The trade union, through its leadership, negotiates with the employer on behalf of union members and bargains labour contract with employers.
The most general reason of these associations or unions is maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment. This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and the promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies.
Unions may put in order a meticulous section of skilled workers like craft unionism, a cross-section of workers from various trades or attempt to organise all workers within a particular industry. Trade unions conventionally have constitutions with details of the governance of the bargaining unit and also have authority at various levels of government depending on the industry that connects them legally to their negotiations and functioning.
Trade unions endeavour to develop and expand close working relationships with employers. Globalisation businesses are expanding hastily and for that reason, the work force in the industries is increasing enormously. To continue the whole work force alone by the management is not an easy task. Trade unions are the only way to manage and control the labour force. Lots of objectives are there to organise trade unions.
Despite all these, Bangladesh labour laws and procedures allow private organisations in corporate sectors and the government bodies to pose formidable barriers to founding and operating a union. The government has clearly defined powers to grant and cancel a union’s registration, however; the lack of procedural transparency in the labour departments of the government is the issue that forms the hurdles to the birth of a union.
Bangladeshi workers have a strong reputation for hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, and a positive and optimistic attitude. With an average age in Bangladesh of 26 years, the country boasts one of the largest and youngest labour forces in the world.
The labour and employment ministry reports that there are 7,659 trade unions in Bangladesh, covering nearly three million workers, with 507 unions in the apparel sector, including 375 new unions registered since 2013. The ministry reported that there were 16 unions in the shrimp sector and 13 unions in the leather and tannery sector.
The joint directorate of labour is the body in charge for approving union applications and has extensive authority in this regard. Since July 2013, following the establishment of the US GSP Action Plan for Bangladesh to work towards the retrieval of perched GSP benefits, more than 300 unions have been registered although reports of problems with the registration process are on the mount. In spite of the international efforts to prop up the registration of unions and to examine unfair labour practices, threats and harassment of union leaders go on to be reported. In a sector with more than 3,500 factories, something like a dozen have collective bargaining agreements.
The Bangladesh Labour Act was amended in 2013, and its implementing rules and regulations published in October 2015. The rules offers much awaited explanation on key issues like the process to form occupational safety and health committees. The rules also includes regulations for outsourcing companies, requiring them to register with the labour and employment ministry.
Keeping to the law, the director of labour will, on being satisfied that a trade union has complied with all the requirements of the statute and rules, register that trade union in the register and will issue a registration certificate within a period of 60 days from the date of receipt of the application for registration.
The law also suggests that if the director of labour finds the application to be deficient in any material respect, he will communicate in writing his objection regarding thereto to the trade union within a period of 15 days of the receipt of the application and the trade union will reply thereto within a period of 15 days of the receipt of objection.
Therefore, the law is precise and self-explanatory regarding the registration of a trade union. However, in Bangladesh, the organs of the government do not constantly and efficiently put into effect applicable labour laws. For example, in some reported cases, it has been complained that the department of labour is sometimes denying the registration of a trade union without stating proper reasons or sometimes delaying the registration of trade union through adopting various kind of malicious procedures. The government authorities are depriving the workers from forming a trade union under Section 182 of the act in different ways, maybe through asking for interpretations of the law from the court that is self-descriptive and understandable. Sometimes they file appeals against the decision of the labour tribunal passed in favour of the employees to lengthen the process of registration. This also increases the burden of courts and results in causing injustice to the workers.
An inseparable element of human rights are the union rights and freedoms contained in international documents, conventions and recommendations, such as the Charter and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (adopted in 1966), the fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization (Convention No 87 and Convention No 98), as well as the acts of the Council of Europe — the European Convention on Human Rights (adopted in 1950) and the European Social Charter (adopted in 1961). As reported by the International Labour Organisation, Bangladesh has ratified 35 conventions, dealing with labour rights, out of which 31 are in force, 2 conventions have been denounced; 2 instruments abrogated.
Since Bangladesh government has shown its sincerity with regards to protecting the rights of labour force till date, hence, this piecemeal incidents demand the attention of the government so that it deals with the issues relating to the formation and operation of trade union immediately keeping the interest of the workers protected. It is hoped that necessary steps will be taken so that the workers in Bangladesh will not be deprived of their right to form and operate trade union.
Tasmiah Nuhiya Ahmed is a research assistant (law) at the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs.