a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right to join unions and, with government approval, the right to form a union, although labor rights organizations reported high levels of rejections for trade union registration and an overly complicated registration process. The law requires a minimum of 20 percent of an enterprise’s total workforce to agree to be members before the Department of Labor under the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MOLE) may grant approval for registration of a union. The department may request a labor court dissolve the union if membership falls below 20 percent. Generally, the law allows only wall-to-wall (entire factory) bargaining units. NGOs reported the Registrar of Trade Unions regularly abused its discretion and denied applications without reason, for reasons not recognized in law or regulation, or by fabricating shortcomings in the application. One union representative explained she had completed all paperwork to form a union and had support from 30 percent of workers, but the union registration was rejected by the Department of Labor because the factory claimed it had hundreds of additional employees. Organizers’ names were shared with the factory owner, and all were fired. Furthermore, the department did not allow more than one union per garment factory. Labor leaders reported unions sympathetic to management received quick approvals to organize
The labor law definition of workers excludes managerial, supervisory, and administrative staff. Firefighting staff, security guards, and employers’ confidential assistants are not entitled to join a union. Civil service and security force employees are prohibited from forming unions.
The law continued to ban trade unions and severely restricted the right to organize and bargain collectively for the nearly 430,000 workers in export-processing zones (EPZs). Worker welfare associations (WWAs), dominated by the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), continued to replace the function of independent, democratically elected unions in EPZs. The law limits inspection and greatly restricts the right to strike, giving BEPZA’s chairperson discretion to ban any strike viewed as prejudicial to the public interest. The law provides for EPZ labor tribunals, appellate tribunals, and conciliators, but those institutions were not established. Instead, eight labor courts and one appellate labor court heard EPZ cases. More than 50 percent of WWAs in one zone of the EPZ must approve a federation, and they were prohibited from establishing any connection to outside political parties, unions, federations, or NGOs. Except for limitations on the right of association and worker protections in the EPZs, the labor law prohibits antiunion discrimination. A labor court may order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities, but reinstatement was rarely awarded.
The Department of Labor may deregister unions for other reasons with the approval of a labor court. The law affords unions the right of appeal in the cases of dissolution or denial of registration. Unfair labor practices, including antiunion discrimination, were expressly prohibited, but 2018 amendments to labor law halved penalties for both employers and workers. The labor law and rules amendment process continued, as indicated in a roadmap the government submitted to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Workers were often charged with unfair labor practices; employers rarely were. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. The law provides for the right to conduct legal strikes but with many limitations. For example, the government may prohibit a strike deemed to pose a “serious hardship to the community” and may terminate any strike lasting more than 30 days. The law additionally prohibits strikes for the first three years of commercial production if the factory was built with foreign investment or owned by a foreign investor.
The law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court. The Department of Labor has the authority to deal with unfair labor practices, while the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) has the authority to mediate wage-related disputes, but their decisions were not binding. The government reported 20 complaints were filed for unfair labor practices from January to December 1; six were resolved according to the law and standard operating procedures, four investigations were completed, and 10 remained open. Trade union federations reported they have stopped filing unfair labor cases due to the enormous backlog of existing cases in labor courts.
The law establishes that workers in a collective-bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. Few strikes followed the cumbersome legal requirements, however, and strikes or walkouts often occurred spontaneously. According to the law, at least 75 percent of union employees must support strike action. Work stoppages, strikes, and workplace actions were prevalent during the year in several sectors, and they generally concerned past-due wages, improper or illegal shutdowns, layoffs, terminations, and discrimination. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these problems.
In July the workers of Style Craft factory in Gazipur agitated in front of the Labor Ministry building for 10 days, demanding arrears. Despite repeated meetings of MOLE with the employers, there was still no progress as to the payment of the arrears. According to the Industrial Police, the factory had 3,200 workers who did not receive wages after the factory announced sudden closure of its operation. The workers stated wages were in arrears for four to nine months and that their total due was more than 700 million taka ($8.14 million); however, the factory owner wanted to pay less than 25 million taka ($290,698).
On June 13, a female ready-made-garments (RMG) factory worker, Jesmin Begum, died and 35 others were injured as police clashed with 500-600 former workers demonstrating peacefully for the payment of arrears in front of the Dhaka EPZ. Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and used charged batons and water cannons to disperse the workers of Lenny Fashions Ltd, Lenny Apparels Ltd and A One Fashions Ltd., some of whom in return threw bricks at police, according to a local trade union leader. Union leaders said Begum died after being hit by rubber bullets, although police alleged she critically injured her head as she bumped into a pole while fleeing. In January the three referenced factories allegedly closed without clearing workers arrears, and thereafter former workers periodically demonstrated to protest. Dhaka EPZ authorities stated they were trying to sell the closed factories to clear the workers’ arrears.
On April 17, media reported at least seven workers were killed, and dozens injured after police opened fire on a crowd of workers demanding payment of unpaid wages and a pay raise at a Chinese-backed power plant. Police opened fire after approximately 2,000 protesters began hurling bricks and stones at officers at the construction site of the coal-fired plant in the southeastern city of Chittagong. The workers were protesting regarding unpaid wages, a pay raise, and reduced hours during the holy month of Ramadan, which started the same week as the protest.
According to the labor rights organization Solidarity Center, union registration applications and approvals have declined significantly since 2013 and that workers faced significant challenges registering unions. Despite the adoption of standard operating procedures for union registration in 2017, Solidarity Center reported the process routinely took longer than the 60-day maximum time, and nearly half of all union applications were arbitrarily denied. From January to December 1, Solidarity Center’s partners assisted 10 unions with their registration, and to date only one was approved, three were rejected, and six were pending approval. The government reported receiving 233 total valid applications during the year and approved 190, rejected 31, with the remainder still to be reviewed.
Workers in the RMG sector reported resistance when seeking to establish unions and engage in collective bargaining. In a 2018 survey, the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a local think tank, collected data from 3,856 RMG factories employing 3.6 million workers and found 97.5 percent of them had no union. During the year MOLE reported the RMG sector had 1,006 active trade unions and 1,951 participation committees. Labor leaders claimed much lower numbers of trade unions and asserted while there are perhaps 80 to 90 active unions, only 30 to 40 actually negotiated because intimidation, corruption, and violence continued to constrain union organizing. The ministry reported the shrimp sector had 16 unions. Only 70 tanneries were unionized under the sector’s single union. The tea sector had one union, the largest in the country, representing 95,000 to 100,000 workers. Labor regulations do not clearly provide a legal basis for collective bargaining at the industrial, sectoral, and national levels.
Labor rights groups reported workers routinely faced retaliation and violence for asserting their rights under the law, including organizing unions, raising concerns, or even attending union information sessions. For example, on August 6, the Bangladesh Industrial Police (BIP) filed a criminal case against the general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation and other union leaders and members that the Solidarity Center characterized as a case of retaliation for attempting to organize. Workers at the Crossline garment factories in the city of Gazipur failed to register two unions and accused factory management of violating labor laws. These deep disagreements with management led to protests, BIP intervention, and violence on both sides; in response, Crossline filed criminal charges against up to 200 of its factory workers and dismissed others who had led the push to unionize.
Workers in unions were subjected to police violence, mass dismissals, and arrests of union leaders for asserting their rights to protest. Police intimidated unions in the RMG sector by frequently visiting their meetings and offices, photographing or recording meetings, and monitoring NGOs supporting trade unions. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) noted major discrepancies in labor legislation that do not align with the standards of the ILO and emphasized concerns regarding police crackdowns on workers protesting wages. ITUC also called for more measures to restrain interference in union elections. In September Geneva-based IndustriALL Global Union reported police first banned several union meetings and then physically stopped participants from joining a meeting where a regional committee of the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council was to be formed. According to labor law, every factory with more than 50 employees is required to have a participation committee (PC). The law states there shall not be any participation committee if any registered trade union exists in a factory. Employers often selected or appointed workers for the PC instead of permitting worker elections to determine those positions. Employers also failed to comply with laws and regulations that provided for the effectiveness and independence of PCs.
Workers from several factories also asserted that since August 2018, Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and factory owners allegedly used a database of RMG workers to blacklist those who brought demands to management or tried to form unions. Although created after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse to have a record of workers (and potential victims of future disasters), the database served to track known union organizers or anyone who has brought a complaint to management to prevent these staff from finding employment at any other factory. Labor organizations also cited examples of factory owners willing to pay up to one million taka ($11,628) to the Department of Labor to dismiss a union registration application, or to share the names of organizers.