11. Labor Policies and Practices
Bangladesh’s comparative advantage in cheap labor for manufacturing is partially offset by lower productivity due to poor skills development, inefficient management, pervasive corruption, and inadequate infrastructure. According to the 2016-2017 Labor Force Survey, 85 percent of the Bangladeshi labor force is employed in the informal economy. Bangladeshi workers have a strong reputation for hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, and a positive and optimistic attitude. With an average age of 26 years, the country boasts one of the largest and youngest labor forces in the world. However, training is not well aligned with labor demand. Bangladesh’s labor laws specify acceptable employment conditions, working hours, minimum wage levels, leave policies, health and sanitary conditions, and compensation for injured workers. Freedom of association and the right to join unions are guaranteed in the constitution. In practice, however, compliance and enforcement of labor laws are weak, and companies frequently discourage or prevent formation of worker-led labor unions, preferring pro- factory management unions. Export Processing Zones (EPZs) are a notable exception to the national labor law in that trade unions are not allowed there. The EPZ labor law instead allows worker welfare associations, to which 74 percent of workers belong, according to the government.
Since two back-to-back tragedies killed over 1,250 workers – the Tazreen Fashions fire in 2012 and the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 – Bangladesh made significant progress in garment factory fire and structural safety remediation, thanks mostly to two Western brand-led initiatives, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance), comprised of North American brands, and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord), which was formed by European brands. Major accidents and workplace deaths in the garment sector dropped precipitously as a result—to zero in 2020. Monitoring and remediation of RMG factories exporting to non-Western countries was overseen by the government, with assistance from the International Labor Organization (ILO) under the National Initiative. By 2020, fewer than half the factories under the National Initiative had completed initial remediation of safety issues, and both the Alliance and Accord had closed their Bangladesh operations. North American brands continued to monitor manufacturers’ safety maintenance and training through a new organization, Nirapon. The Accord, under High Court order, handed over its staff and operations to the newly formed RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), overseen by a board consisting of manufacturers, brands, and worker representatives. The government is working to form an Industrial Safety Unit to oversee factory safety in National Initiative garment factories as well as all manufacturing
The U.S. government suspended Bangladesh’s access to the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) over labor rights violations following a six-year formal review conducted by the U.S. Trade Representative. The decision, announced in 2013 in the months following the Rana Plaza collapse, was accompanied by a 16-point GSP Action Plan to help start Bangladesh’s path to reinstatement of the trade benefits. While some progress was made in the intervening years, several key issues have not been adequately addressed. Despite revisions intended to make Bangladesh more compliant with international labor standards, the Bangladesh Labor Act (BLA) and EPZ Labor Act (ELA) still restrict the freedom of association and formation of unions and maintain separate administrative systems for workers inside and outside of export processing zones.
Under the current BLA, legally registered unions are entitled to submit charters of demands and bargain collectively with employers, but this has rarely occurred in practice. The government counts nearly 1,000 registered trade unions, but labor leaders estimate there are fewer than 100 active trade unions in the country’s dominant sector, RMG, and only 30 to 40 are capable enough to negotiate with owners. The law provides criminal penalties for conducting unfair labor practices such as retaliation against union members for exercising their legal rights, but charges are rarely brought against employers and the labor courts have a large backlog of cases. Labor organizations reported most workers did not exercise their rights to form unions, attend meetings, or bargain collectively due to fear of reprisal. A crackdown on mostly peaceful wage protests between December 2018 and February 2019 reportedly led to termination or forced resignation of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 garment workers – many of whom were blacklisted and remained unable to find new employment in the garment sector over a year later.
The labor law differentiates between layoffs and terminations; no severance is paid if a worker is fired for misconduct. In the case of downsizing or “retrenchment,” workers must be notified and paid 30 days’ wages for each year of service. The law requires factories and establishments to notify Bangladesh’s Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments a week prior to temporarily laying off workers due to a shortage of work or material. Laid off workers are entitled to their full housing allowance. For the first 45 days, they are also entitled to half their basic wages, then 25 percent thereafter. Workers who were employed for less than one year are not eligible for compensation during a layoff. However, the press and trade unions report employers not only fail to pay workers their severance or benefits, but also their regular wages. In 2020 alone, workers and organizers staged 264 labor protests in the garment sector over back wages, factory layoffs, and demands to reopen closed factories. No unemployment insurance or other social safety net programs exist, although the government had begun discussing how to establish them with the help of development partners and brands. The government does not consistently and effectively enforce applicable labor laws. For example, the law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court and workers in a collective bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. In practice, few strikers followed the cumbersome and time-consuming legal requirements for settlements and strikes or walkouts often occur spontaneously. The government was partnering with the ILO to introduce a dispute settlement system within its Department of Labor.
The government does not consistently and effectively enforce applicable labor laws. For example, the law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court and workers in a collective bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. In practice, few strikers followed the cumbersome and time-consuming legal requirements for settlements and strikes or walkouts often occur spontaneously. The government was partnering with the ILO to introduce a dispute settlement system within its Department of Labor.
The BLA guarantees workers the right to conduct lawful 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 BLA also prohibits strikes at factories in the first three years of commercial production, and at factories controlled by foreign investors.
The U.S. government funds efforts to improve occupational safety and health alongside labor rights in the readymade garment sector in partnership with other international partners, civil society, businesses, and the Bangladeshi government. The United States works with other governments and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to discuss and assist with additional labor reforms needed to fully comply with international labor conventions. In early 2021, the government submitted a draft action plan to the EU and ILO describing how it planned to bring its laws and practices into compliance with international labor standards over time. The U.S. government will closely monitor development and implementation of the plan to ensure it sufficiently addresses long-standing recommendations.