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 registration of a union. 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 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 reported the country had 7,751 trade unions, covering nearly three million workers, with 596 unions in the garment sector, including 464 new unions in the garment sector since 2013. The ministry reported that the shrimp sector had 16 unions and the leather and tannery sector had 13. According to the Solidarity Center, a significant number (122) of the unions in the readymade garment (RMG) sector were no longer active during the year due to factory closures or alleged unfair labor practices on the part of employers.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 2015, the trade union application rate decreased notably in 2016, but it saw an increase during the year after considerable pressure from the international community. Union registration rates in Chittagong were typically lower than in Dhaka, and continuing antiunion behavior in Chittagong depressed union applications. Solidarity Center also reported that 399 RMG factories had unions, and some of these factories had more than one.
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. Workers and union activists continued to face repercussions from widespread strikes that occurred in December 2016 in Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Dhaka. During the strikes approximately 60 factories 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 and advised their members not to strike. At least 26 labor leaders in Ashulia, Gazipur, and Chittagong were detained and arrested by local authorities for a range of allegations, including charges under the Special Powers Act, and between 1,500 and 3,500 workers were terminated. While factories resumed operations on December 26, 2016, labor leaders and workers continued to report police harassment, intimidation, and an increase in general antiunion behavior through most of the year. Intimidation tactics included frequent police visits to union meetings and offices, police taking pictures and video recordings of union meetings, and police monitoring of NGOs involved in supporting trade unions. While most workers from the Ashulia labor unrest were reinstated, labor leaders had cases pending against them despite international pressure to resolve these cases.
In response to the Ashulia unrest, the government formed a permanent tripartite consultative council (TCC) to address labor concerns in the garment industry. The state minister for labor and employment and the ministry’s deputy secretary serve as president and secretary of the 20-member council. The council also includes six representatives from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, six additional representatives from the government, and six worker representatives. The council was supposed to meet at least three times a year, but the president may convene ad hoc meetings as needed. Labor leaders expressed concern that worker representatives were appointed, not elected, and that some of the appointed council members were either not active in the RMG industry, were leaders of very small federations, or were closely aligned with industry.
The TCC’s first case was an investigation into the dispute between the Bangladesh Independent Garments Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) and the Azim Group, a manufacturer operating multiple factories. Workers and labor leaders alleged that factory owners and police intimidated and physically harassed them due to their attempts to form a union at two factories in Chittagong owned by the Azim Group (Savar Sweater Ltd. and Orchid Sweater Ltd.). BIGUF’s application to form a union was rejected four times within two and one-half years. Workers and labor leaders alleged that prounion workers and BIGUF activists were physically attacked on May 27 outside the factory gates. In June an owner-aligned group calling itself the Chittagong Workers Unity Council also staged several protests and distributed flyers featuring an image of a noose around the neck of a well-known BIGUF leader and calling for his death. Additionally, Azim Group terminated more than 200 workers at its factories during the year. Labor leaders alleged the terminations were due to workers’ affiliations with BIGUF, which the Azim Group denied.
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.
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 of harassment from organized labor, including physical intimidation, but statistics and specific examples were unavailable.
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 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.
A separate legal framework under the authority of the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA) governs labor rights in the EPZs, with approximately 458,000 workers. 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. 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 chairperson 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.
During the year governments and the ILO, through the Sustainability Compact process, continued to urge the country to make progress on freedom of association issues, including the draft EPZ law, and to continue to investigate alleged acts of antiunion discrimination. In response, the government drafted standard operating procedures regarding union registration and recalled from parliament the draft Export Processing Zone Labor Act. 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. It also 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.
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.