On May Day, workers the world over pick up the invisible thread running through each of them as part of a global workforce. They pronounce the unspoken bond tying together those who earn their way in this world, as part of a greater design in which their contribution counts for much more than a measure of their productivity or the hourly wage rate.
Every year, on May 1, they march quite literally in solidarity with each other, in appreciation of the sacrifices they make that only workers know all too well, and to celebrate their outsized role in leading humanity’s march through progress and towards emancipation. In them you have the salt of the earth.
Workers’ welfare has been guaranteed in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Section 14 dictates that “It shall be a fundamental responsibility of the State to emancipate the toiling masses, the peasants and workers, and backward sections of the people from all forms of exploitation”. Section 15 also mentions the right to guaranteed employment at a reasonable wage and the right to social security.
But if we look into the life of one Md Sumon, a bus helper, who works 12-13 hours a day on the Gulistan-Abdullahpur route with next-to-nothing breaks and a meagre Tk 350-400 daily wage, the question remains whether we are truly on the right track to ensuring workers rights and their safety, 5 years after the disaster that was Rana Plaza, when promises to reform were made by everyone.
Loopholes catch rights
Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 was enacted for amending and consolidating the laws relating to employment of workers, relations between workers and employers, determination of minimum rates of wages, payment of wages, compensation for injuries to workers during working hours, formation of trade unions, raising and settlement of industrial disputes, health, safety, welfare and working conditions and environment of workers and apprenticeship and matters adjuvant thereto. In order to make the labour law more efficient, amendments have been made to it several times and finally the latest amended law was enacted in the year 2013 as “Bangladesh Labour Act 2006”.
Subsequently as the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh (Government of Bangladesh) was under pressure from various sources to promulgate the Labour Rules for a long time, the Government of Bangladesh has also introduced Bangladesh Labour Rules 2015 (Rule of 2015) on 15 September 2015 through a gazette.
As per these laws, the management of an organisation has to comply with the detailed requirements mentioned in the Act and Rule for maintaining suitable working conditions at the workplaces and the degree of compliance is to be inspected by the relevant government authorities from time to time. Moreover, as reported by the Human Rights Watch, fire and safety factory inspections continued in the garment industry following agreements between big brands and the Bangladeshi government arising out of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster. However, in September 2016, there was a fire outburst in a packaging factory in which at least 31 workers were killed and another 50 others injured. This incident highlighted the need for further efforts to ensure workers’ rights and safety.
In reaction to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in April 2013, the “Compact for Continuous Improvements in Labour Rights and Factory Safety in the Ready-Made Garment and Knitwear Industry in Bangladesh” (Sustainability Compact) was built on short and long term commitments related to three inter-linked pillars: 1) respect for labour rights; 2) structural integrity of buildings and occupational safety and health; and 3) responsible business conduct. The Government of Bangladesh, European Union (EU), the United States (US), Canada and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) engaged in this joint initiative in order to promote continuous improvements in labour rights and factory safety in the Ready-Made Garment (‘RMG’) industry in Bangladesh.
The welfare and severance benefits are provided by law; however, it is not practiced. The section 89, 91,92,93,94,96,97,98 of Labour Act enumerates various welfare facilities like first aid kit, washing facilities, canteen, shelters, children’s room, housing facilities in tea plantation, medical care for newspaper. If you talk to workers, a large number of them would respond saying that they are not provided with any of these facilities. In the construction sector, very few would say that they have first-aid kits. When speaking to researcher most construction workers and tea garden workers said that workers benefits are generally absent and denied. There is no formal body in the factories or workplace to ensure that workers given their entitled benefit.
Section 62 of Labour Act strictly instruct the factory owners to ensure workers safety and asks employers and factory management to take safety measures including proper fire safety system and training for workers. However, these are just written words, empty legal rhetoric. The tragedy of Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza shows us what the reality is with regards to this law.
Although the section 46 of the Act talks about maternity benefit, in practice no factory provides maternity leave for four months. Most factories give maternity leave only without pay. Women are often forced to leave work, if pregnant. Sometimes, women in reproductive age choose to not have child in fear of losing the job. There is no effective monitoring mechanism to ensure that the factory owners and employers are following the labour codes outlined in this Act.
The law sets a very strict and nearly impossible condition that is the support of 30 % of workers to form a union in a factory or workplace. In the current owner dominated conditions of worker, it is virtually a trade union ban.
The section on compensation is outdated and lacks any empathy towards workers. It is outrageous that even after the Tazreen fire and collapse at Rana Plaza, the compensation law in the country still remains unchanged. It is unimaginable that a worker is only entitled to Tk 1, 25,000 for complete loss of productivity. The aspects of social protection have remained untouched in the labour law of Bangladesh such as provisions on pension and medical and life insurance for the workers.
The Constitution of Bangladesh, in Article 14 states that ‘It should be a fundamental responsibility of the State to emancipate the toiling masses — the peasants and workers — and backward section of the people from all forms of exploitation.’
On this May Day, today, we all need to think long and hard about how workers have built the country we live in and how we need to reward them for their relentless hard work. Existing labour act, as it stands in terms of practice are just pages filled with empty rhetoric. There needs to be a fundamental change in the labour act and other relevant policies to make a difference in workers lives.
For inclusive growth
Decent work is the major component for inclusive growth, Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said during a recent presentation he gave during a dialogue titled “Inclusive growth and decent work” organised by the Economic Relations Division (ERD) on April 9. Proper plans should be taken for the next 10 years to ensure inclusive growth, he also suggested.
The analysts during the dialogue agreed in unison that the existing labour law needs to be amended to protect workers’ rights and meet international standards. To achieve inclusive growth, initiatives should be taken to reduce rising property discrimination and income inequality along with ensuring decent work, they said.
“We need to upgrade the labour laws to cover all the sectors of the economy,” Mikail Shiper, former labour secretary, said at the programme. The existing labour law could not cover some sectors, because of which many remain deprived of their rights, he said. “The law commission should take proactive initiatives to amend the labour law.” He also suggested the minimum wage for workers be fixed in a way which ensures inclusive growth. To protect workers’ rights properly, trade unions should be formed sector-wise, not factory unit-wise, the former bureaucrat said.
Only decent work alone cannot ensure inclusive growth, it needs to reduce property discrimination and income inequality, said Rushidan Islam Rahman, former research director of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. “Workers’ wage has increased with time, but the real income did not increase. If inflation is taken into consideration, the real income has rather declined.” She also suggested for addressing regional inequality issues for balanced development in the country. She gave examples of Rangpur, Rajshahi and Mymensingh, saying people in those divisions were poor compared to those in other parts of the country.
After Rana Plaza
Following the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013, there was widespread criticism of Bangladesh’s readymade garments (RMG) industry, mostly concerning workplace safety and workers’ rights. In the four years since the signing of the Accord and the Alliance, there have been many significant changes in the industry.
The latest data shows that approximately 81% of identified safety hazards found in Accord inspections have been reportedly fixed, while 84% remediation of highest priority non-compliance (NC) issues have been completed in factories inspected by the Alliance.
Across the 1,620 factories inspected by the Accord and 655 factories inspected by the Alliance, fewer than 2% were found to be at risk of violating workers’ rights and these factories have already been closed. “The level of safety in Bangladesh RMG factories producing for Accord signatory companies, in general, has improved significantly,” said Rob Wayss, executive director of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
“After the completion of all remediation given by Accord inspections, we will be able to gain a minimum safety standard. The goal should be to reach a higher level of safety in RMG factories and to prevent backsliding into safety hazards in factories that have been repaired. Building a culture of safety and health in each Accord-listed factory is an important part of making and keeping factories safe,” Wayss also said.
However, workers’ rights are still an issue that needs more attention. The fact that Rana Plaza workers were forced back into the factory a day after cracks had appeared in the building, means the factories still need to empower their workers to the point where they can raise safety related concerns.
Even after four years of the Accord and Alliance, Bangladeshi RMG workers still earn the lowest minimum wage in Asia - indeed the world - of $68 (Tk5,300), while wages in Vietnam are $140 a month, Pakistan $116 a month, India $137 and China $155.
In 2013, Bangladesh government formed a wage board and set Tk 5,300 as minimum wage and Tk3,000 for entry-level wage with a 5% yearly increment. Export earnings from the apparel industry only saw a miniscule 0.2 percent rise to $28.15 billion in the last fiscal (2016-17) which is the lowest on record in the last one and a half decade. From FY2012-13 to FY2015-16 there has been a $6.58 billion growth in the industry.
Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, the assistant executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) said that the number of trade unions has increased since Rana Plaza, with 481 registering after the disaster, but that they still need improvement in implementing labour rights.
“Workers’ right was not a jurisdiction of the Accord and Alliance but there has been some improvements made by them in labour rights,” he said. “The issue has received recognition from stakeholders. Both the government and the RMG industry leaders are taking the issue of labour rights more seriously.”
BGMEA Vice President Mahmud Hasan Khan Babu is proud of the change they have been able to affect. “The global retailers’ platform has recently recognised our RMG industry as the safest,” he said. “The Accord on Fire and Building Safety, Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and Retailers certification on safety standards gives us credibility among the global community.”
Siddiqur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said 3,978 factories have been inspected for building, fire and electrical safety under the combined efforts of the three safety initiatives.
Nazma Akter, president of Sammilito Garment Sramik Federation, however, said, “Safety has increased on the following things; building, electrical and fire. But still many factories have ongoing safety process which is not completed. Overall, the safety process is not satisfactory.
“There has been no significant improvement in ensuring decent working conditions and decent wages. Proper working hours, maternity leave and benefits, etc have not been ensured yet,” she told this correspondent.