The law provides for the right to join unions and, with government approval, the right to form a union, although labor rights organizations said that cumbersome requirements for union registration remained. The law requires a minimum of 30 percent of an enterprise’s total workforce to agree to be members before the Ministry of Labor and Employment may grant approval for a union, and the ministry may request a court to dissolve the union if membership falls below 30 percent. The law allows only wall-to-wall (entire factory) bargaining units. The labor law definition of workers excludes managerial, supervisory, and administrative staff. Firefighting staff, security guards, and employers’ confidential assistants may not join a union. Civil service and security force employees are prohibited from forming unions. The ministry 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. Export Processing Zones (EPZs), which currently do not allow trade union participation, are a notable exception to the national labor law (see below).
Prospective unions continued to report rejections based on reasons not listed in the labor law. The Ministry of Labor and Employment (MOLE) reports that there are 7,659 trade unions in Bangladesh, covering nearly 3 million workers, with 507 unions in the garment sector, including 375 new unions since 2013. MOLE reported that there were 16 unions in the shrimp sector and 13 unions in the leather and tannery sector. According to the Solidarity Center, a significant number of the unions in the readymade garment (RMG) sector were no longer active during the year due to factory closures or alleged unfair labor practices on the part of employers. After a rise in applications in February, the trade union application rate decreased over the course of the year. MOLE reported a better acceptance rate of RMG unions in Dhaka in the current year than in the prior year, with 52 percent of RMG unions successfully registering compared to 27 percent in 2015. The acceptance rate decreased in Chittagong to 41 percent (11 accepted and 16 rejected as of August) compared to 75 percent in 2015. Notably, the number of unions applying for registration significantly decreased in 2016. According to the Solidarity Center, MOLE had registered 47 RMG unions (36 in Dhaka and 11 in Chittagong) and rejected 41 (24 in Dhaka and 17 in Chittagong) as of December, compared with 61 registrations and 148 rejections in all of 2015. Solidarity Center also reported that 347 RMG factories have unions, and some of these factories have more than one union.
Workers at Dhaka Dyeing Garments attempted to register their union three times. The labor ministry rejected the application twice for what workers said were illegal grounds. After the third registration attempt, Ministry officials visited the factory and allegedly tried to turn workers against the union. Workers also publicly claimed the Joint Director of Labor in Dhaka offered the organizing trade union federation money to cease registration efforts. In November 2015, the employer fired more than 100 workers, workers protested, and the employers closed the factory for an illegal work stoppage, with approval from MOLE. After the factory closure, the federation and owners signed a Memorandum of Agreement, which outlined severance for the workers. In 2016, MOLE transferred the Joint Director of Labor in Dhaka, who faced corruption complaints from federations, to another jurisdiction.
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 or if the factory was built with foreign investment or owned by a foreign investor. Starting December 11, 59 factories in Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, experienced work stoppages when thousands of workers went on strike to demand wage increases. The country’s major labor federations did not organize the strike; however, at least 11 labor leaders were detained and arrested by local authorities following the incident for a range of allegations, including charges under the Special Powers Act. Following reported harassment from the industrial police, several labor federations operating in Ashulia and other areas closed their offices, as well as worker community centers supported by the Solidarity Center.
Legally registered unions are entitled to submit charters of demands and bargain collectively with employers; this occurred rarely, but instances were increasing. The law provides criminal penalties for unfair labor practices such as retaliation against union members for exercising their legal rights. Labor organizations reported that in some companies, workers did not exercise their collective bargaining rights due to their unions’ ability to address grievances with management informally or due to fear of reprisal. According to the Solidarity Center, as of October, garment sector unions and their management reached 22 collective bargaining agreements in factories with active unions.
Workers seeking to form a union at Reliance Denim Industries Ltd. (Reliance), a factory in Chittagong, were able to address grievances with management following two violent assaults in January. On January 13, 20 men reportedly attacked a union organizer on his way home from a labor-management meeting and the next day 40 men, including a factory manager, attacked employees within the factory. Factory managers blamed union leaders for the attack in the factory, had the organizer arrested and then refused to allow at least seven people to enter the factory on January 16, effectively causing their suspension. After receiving pressure from at least one brand, on January 25, the union reached an agreement with management to drop criminal charges, allow workers to return to the factory with back-pay for time missed, make a statement to the workforce regarding freedom of association, and start regular labor-management meetings.
The law includes provisions protecting unions from employer interference in organizing activities; however, employers, particularly in the readymade garment industry, often interfered with this right. Labor organizers reported acts of intimidation and abuse, the termination of employees, and scrutiny by security forces and the intelligence services. Labor rights NGOs alleged that some terminated union members were unable to find work in the sector because employers blacklisted them. The BGMEA reported that some factory owners complained about harassment from organized labor, including physical intimidation, but statistics and specific examples were unavailable.
Workers at the Azim Group, a Bangladeshi manufacturer operating multiple factories, have met repeated intimidation, retaliation, and physical violence in their efforts to exercise their associational rights. Following violent attacks on union organizers in Azim-owned factories in 2014, workers at three Azim-owned factories worked to form unions affiliated with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Worker Union Federation (BIGUF) in late 2015. Factory managers retaliated by suspending nine workers involved in the organizing effort. The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) reported that factory managers and supervisors threatened to kill worker activists for organizing a union. On March 31, the JDL rejected all three registration applications with minimal rationale. In May, following intense pressure from buyers contacted by BIGUF and WRC, Azim Group reinstated the nine suspended workers, who have continued their organizing efforts and will refile their applications for union registration.
Managers of Panorama Apparels Ltd. (Panorama) in Gazipur stifled workers’ efforts to organize with assistance of local ruling party politicians. According to WRC, management coerced five workers seeking to form a union to resign on February 29 while the JDL reviewed their application. The JDL then rejected the union registration application on suspect grounds, including the fact that the union’s President and Secretary did not work at the factory (as management had just coerced them to resign). Following pressure from brands, management agreed to several meetings in April with the union leaders to discuss reinstatement of the five individuals and protection of their right to organize. Using a combination of pressure and intimidation from AL politicians and coercion (e.g., denying union leaders the opportunity to consult legal counsel and presenting them a written agreement in English, which they do not understand), however, management convinced the workers not to return to the factory. MOLE reported that five workers voluntarily quit their jobs at Panorama and received their due compensation; MOLE has reported these complaints resolved.
At Friends Stylewear Ltd., factory management terminated all active union members, and in response to several Unfair Labor Practice complaints, the JDL has filed 18 cases against the factory owner according to the WRC. As of August, the cases are pending in the Labor Court.
According to 2013 Amendments to the labor law, every factory with more than 50 employees is required to have an elected Workers’ Participation Committee (WPC). In September 2015, the government passed the Bangladesh Labor Rules called for in the amended law. The rules include an outline of the process for WPC elections. As of August, the government reports that approximately 236 WPCs were formed with the majority in the RMG sector.
A separate legal framework under the authority of the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone (EPZ) Authority (BEPZA) governs labor rights in the EPZs, where approximately 458,000 Bangladeshis work. EPZ law specifies certain limited associational and bargaining rights for Worker Welfare Associations (WWAs) elected by the workers, such as the rights to bargain collectively and represent their members in disputes. According to BEPZA, 231 WWAs were formed as of September. The law prohibits unions within EPZs. While an earlier provision of the EPZ law banning all strikes under penalty of imprisonment expired in 2013, the law continues to provide for strict limits on the right to strike, such as the discretion of the BEPZA’s chairman to ban any strike he views 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. The BEPZA has its own inspection regime with labor counselors that function as inspectors. WWAs in EPZs are prohibited from establishing any connection to outside political parties, unions, federations, or NGOs.
There were no reports of legal strikes in the EPZs. Parliament continued to defer action on a draft EPZ law, which, along with the Bangladesh Labor Act, does not meet international labor standards according to the ILO. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs held several hearings on the draft law, including one on September 29 where the committee solicited feedback from the international community. Following the September 29 meeting, the committee chair assigned a subcommittee the task of reviewing comparable practices in neighboring countries. The committee had not reported back at the end of the year.
With the exception of limitations on the right of association and worker protections in the EPZs, national labor law prohibits antiunion discrimination. A labor court may order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities, but this right was rarely exercised.
The government did not always enforce applicable law effectively or consistently. For example, labor 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 practical terms, few strikes followed the cumbersome legal requirements, and strikes or walkouts often occurred spontaneously.
Penalties for violating the law increased in 2013, enabled by the issuance of implementing rules. The maximum fine for a first violation is 25,000 taka ($313); the fine doubles for a second offense. The law also allows for imprisonment of up to three years. If a violation results in death, the law allows a fine of up to 100,000 taka ($1,250), four years’ imprisonment, or both. Administrative and judicial appeals were subject to lengthy delays.