The law provides for the protection of the right to join unions and, with government approval, the right to form a union, although numerous restrictions on union registration remained. For example, the law requires more than 30 percent of an enterprise’s total workforce to be members before approval can be granted, and the union can be dissolved if membership falls below 30 percent. In addition, no more than three trade unions can be registered in any establishment, and managerial staff, firefighting staff, security guards, and other employees designated by employers as “confidential” may not join a union. Civil service and security force employees are legally prohibited from forming unions.
The registrar of trade unions may deregister unions with the approval of a labor court, and during the year some unions were deregistered for violations of the law. The law affords unions the right of appeal in the case of dissolution or denial of registration.
The law recognizes the right to strike but with many limitations. For example, 75 percent of union members must consent to a strike before it can proceed. The government can terminate any strike lasting more than 30 days and refer the matter to labor courts for adjudication. The law additionally prohibits strikes for the first three years of commercial production or if the factory was built with foreign investment or owned by a foreign investor.
The law includes provisions protecting unions from employer interference in organizing activities; however, employers, particularly in the ready-made garment industry, often sought to curtail this right. The law requires every factory to have a participation committee, but the Ministry of Labor reported there were no such committees in approximately 40 percent of factories.
Under the law, legally registered unions are entitled to bargain collectively with employers; however, this was rarely implemented. Labor organizations reported that in some companies workers feared reprisals and did not exercise their collective bargaining rights.
The law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court. Workers in a collective-bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. Civil servants and security forces do not have recourse to mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and labor court resolution; however, they may avail themselves of the government service regulation and file cases in a specified court, such as an administrative tribunal. In practice few strikes followed the cumbersome legal requirements, and strikes or walkouts often occurred spontaneously.
The director of labor rules on discrimination complaints involving union organizing activities except those in export processing zones (EPZs). Union activists alleged that the Ministry of Labor shared lists of union supporters with enterprises, leading to antiunion firings. A labor court can order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. However, due to a large backlog of unresolved cases, no workers received reinstatement orders during the year. Odhikar reported that 2,712 garment workers were terminated for demanding increased wages, overtime payment, customary holiday bonuses, or punishment of factory staff accused of harassing workers.
The law specifies association rights in the EPZs. Welfare associations provided for by the law are afforded many of the same basic powers as unions, including the right to engage in collective bargaining. Under the law a labor court functions as the EPZ labor tribunal, and EPZ workers can file complaints to enforce broader legal rights in the EPZs. Welfare associations are prohibited, however, from establishing any connection to outside political parties or NGOs, and the law prohibits strikes until October 31, 2013.
Many workers associations in EPZ factories were not formally registered because factory managers discouraged employees attempting to organize associations. Some factory managers strongly discouraged workers from meeting with outside labor organizations and sometimes terminated workers who did. The Bangladesh EPZ Authority failed to provide effective measures to allow the formation of federations of workers.
EPZ factory officials interpreted EPZ regulations and applicable laws narrowly and claimed they were exempted from the broader labor law. Labor groups challenged this claim. Workers’ legal cases against EPZ factories that did not follow the law remained unresolved at year’s end.
Factory workers in the garment industry who held protests to demand increased wages were generally met by riot police. In June garments workers protested for 10 days in Ashulia, demanding a wage increase to keep up with inflation and higher food prices. The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association closed 300 factories during the unrest. The Ministry of Labor formed a crisis management committee that mediated a solution by offering food subsidies to workers.
Labor organizers reported acts of intimidation and abuse, arbitrary lockouts, firing of employees, and increased scrutiny by security forces and the NSI. Authorities sometimes arrested labor organizers for destruction of property and other charges, in what some NGOs considered repression of labor rights activists.
On April 4, Aminul Islam, an organizer for the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) and staff member of the BCWS disappeared from Savar in Dhaka division and was found dead on April 8 in Ghatail, Tangail. Media reports indicated his body showed signs of torture. The government’s investigation suggested that Aminul might have been killed due to his union-organizing activities. The primary suspect in the case, Mustafiz, may have been an informant for the NSI and has not been seen since Aminul’s death. As of the end of the year, no charges had been filed.
BCWS leaders continued to face criminal charges for participating in demonstrations in 2010 for increased wages. The government dropped charges in one case two-and-a-half years after its filing. Another 10 cases remained outstanding against labor federation leaders at year’s end. The BCWS remained deregistered because the government would not approve its application.
Implementation of the collective bargaining law’s provisions was uneven, and many private sector employers discouraged union activity or terminated workers after forming unions. Labor rights NGOs alleged that terminated union members were unable to find work in the sector because they had been blacklisted.
The Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Association (BEPZA) obstructed the rights of workers in the Rosita Knitwear and Megatex Knitters factories in the Ishwardi EPZ. After a workers’ demonstration on January 30, factory owners terminated 291 workers, including the elected presidents of the welfare associations. The workers and buyers successfully negotiated the workers’ reinstatement, but the BEPZA did not allow their reemployment. The BEPZA asserted that there were no regulations to require reinstatement of workers and no precedent for reemployment, notwithstanding that workers of Ringshine Textiles were reinstated at a Dhaka EPZ factory in 2006.