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 said cumbersome requirements for union registration remained. The law requires a minimum of 20 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 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 denies applications for no 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 Directorate of Labor because the factory claimed it had hundreds of additional employees. Organizers’ names were shared with the factory owner and all were fired.
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 500,000 workers in export processing zones (EPZs). Worker welfare associations (WWAs), dominated by the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), continue to replace the function of independent, democratically elected unions in EPZs. The law strictly limits 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. WWAs in EPZs are prohibited from establishing any connection to outside political parties, unions, federations, or NGOs. With the exception of 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 Ministry of Labor and Employment 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. Workers were often charged with unfair labor practices; employers rarely were. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties were 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 Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) has the authority to mediate wage-related disputes, but its decisions are not binding. The government reported nine complaints were filed for unfair labor practices; three were resolved according to the law and standard operating procedures, six remained open, and no employers were penalized. 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. Work stoppages, strikes, and workplace actions were prevalent during the year in several sectors, and generally concerned past-due wages, improper or illegal shutdowns, layoffs, terminations and discrimination. In one example, the manager of Ettade Jeans Ltd. filed a criminal case against 65 to 75 workers who, protesting an announced six-month delay to their holiday bonus, vandalized the factory, severely injured and robbed a man in management, and threatened other workers.
According to Solidarity Center, union registration applications and approvals have declined significantly since 2013, and workers face significant challenges registering unions. Despite the adoption of standard operating procedures for union registration in 2017, Solidarity Center reported the process routinely takes longer than the 60-day maximum time, and nearly half of all union applications are arbitrarily denied. Through August, Solidarity Center’s partners assisted nine unions with their registration, and five were approved. The government reported receiving 231 total valid applications in 2020 and approving 145, with 68 still to be reviewed in September.
Workers in the ready-made garment sector reported particular 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 ready-made garment factories employing 3.6 million workers, and found 97.5 percent of them had no union. During the year the Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the ready-made garment sector had 909 active trade unions and 1,609 participation committees. Labor leaders asserted while there are perhaps 80 to 90 active unions, only 30 to 40 actually negotiate because intimidation, corruption, and violence continue to constrain union organizing. The ministry reported the shrimp sector had 16 unions and the leather and tannery sector had 13. The tea sector had one union–the largest in the country–representing 95,000 to 100,000 workers.
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 in June, management at Romana Fashion of East West Industrial Park fired 122 workers including seven union leaders when they pointed out union members were being transferred to different floors and divisions. After thousands protested the prime minister’s decision to close 26 state-owned jute mills and force 50,000 into early retirement, two labor leaders were taken from their homes on July 5 by unidentified, armed men, then appeared in police custody 30 hours later under charges stemming from a 2019 protest. When workers protested the closure of Viyellatex Limited, police beat and filed false cases against them, and factory management blacklisted 95 workers for their alleged misconduct and posted a list of their names on the factory wall. Individuals harassed and blocked Solidarity Center staff from approaching the factory, threatening sexual violence against female staff who tried to meet with workers.
Additionally, workers in unions have been subjected to police violence, mass dismissals, and arrests of union leaders for asserting their rights to protest. Police intimidated unions in the ready-made garment industry 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 International Labor Organization and emphasized concerns regarding police crackdowns on workers protesting wages. ITUC also called for more measures to restrain interference in union elections.
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 to ensure the effectiveness and independence of PCs.
Workers from several factories also reported that since August 2018, BGMEA and factory owners have allegedly used a database of ready-made garment workers to blacklist those who brought demands to management or tried to form unions. Although created after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in order to have a record of workers (and potential victims of future disasters), the database now serves 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 $12,000 to the Department of Labor to dismiss a union registration application, or to share the names of organizers.