For anyone who kept up with the proceedings, the judgement passed down by Dhaka's 3rd Labour Court this week, in the case against Grameen Bank founder Dr Muhammad Yunus and three other senior officials of Grameen Telecom that found them all guilty of obscure violations of the Labour Act, could have come as no surprise. The trial started on August 22, and the verdict was out by January 1. The fact that it didn't pause and meander or disappear from the public discourse for a while actually helped us in keeping it all together and seeing it for what it was: a spectacle of injustice as it is meted out in Bangladesh today, on the whims or at the pleasure of the powers that be. According to a 2021 study by BLAST, labour courts took 630 days on average to award compensation (it would be another 475 days on average for employers to cough up the money).

Just a fifth of that (130 days) was enough for Judge Merina Sheikh, presiding over Dhaka's third labour court, to weigh up all the facts and arguments from each side on charges that were criminal, and pronounce her guilty verdicts.

The trial was for a case filed by a Labour inspector with the Department for Inspections of Factories and Establishments, or DIFE, primarily alleging three violations of Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (BLA) by Grameen Telecom pertaining to employees' classification, leaves, and profit-sharing schemes: Employees were not classified as permanent workers after probationary period in contravention of Section 4(7) of the BLA; employees were not granted annual leave with pay or money against earned leave in contravention of Section 117(7) of the BLA and that GTC failed to establish Workers Participatory Fund and Workers Welfare Fund by depositing 5 percent of its net profit in contravention of Section 234 of the BLA.

The third offence, dealing with the failure to set aside 5% of profits by firms beyond a certain threshold of assets and revenues, is the most interesting one, since prior to the publicity brought about by this case, almost no-one was aware of such a progressive law existing in Bangladesh. Of course, being registered as a not-for-profit company under Section 28 of the Companies Act, whether the rule applies to Grameen Telecom is itself questionable. But are the vast majority of Bangladeshi workers then benefitting from such a law being in the books, while Grameen Telecom employees were being denied? Through an amendment to the BLA in 2013, the BGMEA managed to get itself exempted from this provision. So RMG firms are not required to distribute 5% of profits to their workforce. The most labour-intensive sector within manufacturing, and by far the most profitable industry, is exempt from a scheme matching workers with a share of profits. Go figure.

Be that as it may, what about the others? At present the banking industry is keen on securing a formal exemption for itself, even though it has ignored this provision for 18 years anyway. In fact, the overwhelming majority of eligible firms have been flouting this provision for years and years now, but Grameen Telecom, or rather its directors, have become the first to be convicted for it. According to the Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation, which was set up under the BLA 2006 as a bureau of the Labour and Expatriate Welfare Ministry to administer all this, as of 2023 there are some 140,000 establishments (out of a total of around 600,000 registered entities) that have crossed the threshold to qualify for paying into the fund. Only around 300 ever have - that's 0.21% of eligible firms, and that too irregularly, taking various liberties not provided for by the law as it is written. It means there are some 139,700 firms in the country today that are in violation of the law, but only Grameen Telecom has ever been prosecuted for it - that too criminally.

Strangely, the company itself, Grameen Telecom, was not named as a party in the case. Only Dr Yunus and the three directors who are most closely associated with him are mentioned, which was the first suggestion that the case may have been politically motivated and targeted at harassing and intimidating Bangladesh's sole Nobel laureate. None of the accused directors were actively engaged in controlling the daily activities of the company. The next red flag was in initiating criminal proceedings against Mohammad Yunus and his colleagues for issues that belong to the civil and administrative arena. Amnesty International called it 'a blatant abuse of labour laws and the justice system and a form of political retaliation'. Then you saw the pace at which things were progressing, and you just knew they had it in for him.

It's all very disappointing, because why would we want to treat someone of his stature like this? It defies comprehension. Amnesty mentioned 'political retaliation', but does anyone seriously believe he poses any threat or harbours any ambition in the political arena even today? The only saving grace is that he was granted immediate bail upon notification of his intention to appeal, which can be done for sentences of a year or less. We can only hope now that the High Court rectifies this judgement by reversing it, so that we no longer have to bear this mistreatment of one of the finest sons of our soil, on our collective conscience.

In his immediate reaction, Dr Yunus regretted the fact of "being punished for a crime we didn't commit," before handing it over to Barrister Abdullah Al Mamun, his legal counsel. Throughout the last few months, Barrister Al Mamun has been careful not to disrespect the court, despite numerous irregularities in the process itself that may have been enough to delegitimise the trial. Following this verdict however, he couldn't help but be scathing in his assessment, starting with the unusual way in which the judgement was delivered.

"The rule is, the judge will read the full judgement in open court. That is how it started. But when she saw that every line of the judgement contained errors, she started omitting line after line. She just gave the order, leaving out the full verdict. It is against the law. The rule is that the entire verdict should be read out in the presence of the accused."

He then mentioned some of the general peculiarities of the trial's management:

"She gave 9-10 dates in a month for the case of Yunus. Three courts have arrived this month. No court records have been produced. Today's verdict has been announced by creating a courtroom by themselves, creating history by running the court proceedings till 8:30 pm."

He mentioned how some of the provisions of the BLA have actually been flouted in the judgement itself.

"If 5 percent of the profit is not paid to the workers, then section 236 of the Act specifies a time will be fixed for it. If then it is unpaid, they will go for a fine or compensation. Even then if the money remains unpaid, measures will be taken according to the Public Demand Recovery Act. They can appeal to the government to act on the employer to pay up. None of this was followed. The Supreme Court has ruled that a criminal case can only be filed after a civil case fails to realise the compensation. Here the opposite was done."

Barrister Al Mamun said they (he and his team) presented 109 contradictions in the state's arguments. Usually even in murder cases, presenting a single contradiction can be enough to win an acquittal. But here, even 109 of them were not enough. It all goes to underline the travesty of justice that we have all witnessed, and the damning picture it paints of the state of our judicial system means that even as things move to the High Court, we cannot quite be confident of a sighting of Lady Justice yet.

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