Section 7. Worker Rights
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 approval rate for union registration applicants declined significantly over the past year. Registration applications were often rejected or challenged for erroneous or extrajudicial reasons outside the scope of the law.
The labor law definition of workers excludes managerial, supervisory, and administrative staff. Fire-fighting 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 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. Export processing zones (EPZs), which do not allow trade union participation, are a notable exception to the labor law. On February 28, the government enacted a new labor law for the EPZs. These laws continued to deny EPZ workers the right to form or join a union.
Prospective unions continued to report rejections based on reasons not listed in the labor law. The Ministry of Labor and Employment reported that the country had 7,823 trade unions, covering nearly three million workers, with 596 unions in the garment sector. This figure included 574 new unions in the garment sector formed since 2013. The ministry reported the shrimp sector had 16 unions and the leather and tannery sector had 13. According to the Solidarity Center, a significant number of the unions in the ready-made garment sector ceased to be active during the year due to factory closures or alleged unfair labor practices on the part of employers, and it became increasingly harder to register unions in larger ready-made garment factories. After a sharp increase in trade union applications in 2014, there was a decline every year thereafter.
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 government occasionally targeted union leaders. During wage protests in December 2018 and January, police dispersed protesters using tear gas, water cannons, batons, and rubber bullets, reportedly injuring dozens of workers and killing at least one. In the aftermath, factory owners filed cases against thousands of workers. More than 50 workers and union leaders were arrested and spent weeks in jail. According to Solidarity Center, most if not all of the cases against hundreds of workers remained pending at year’s end. Several companies also illegally suspended or terminated thousands of workers without proper severance payments. In some cases, factory management exploited the situation to target active union leaders and to blacklist them from employment. Other 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 2016 widespread Ashulia labor unrest were reinstated, labor leaders had cases pending against them despite international pressure to resolve these cases.
In response to unrest in the Dhaka industrial suburb of Ashulia in 2016, the government formed a permanent tripartite consultative council to address labor concerns in the garment industry. NGOs said the tripartite consultative council was not functioning. 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 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 ready-made garment industry, were leaders of very small federations, or were closely aligned with industry.
Legally registered unions recognized as official Collective Bargaining Agents (CBAs) 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 ready-made 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, a tactic used to chill the organizing environment. 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 the labor law, every factory with more than 50 employees is required to have a participation committee (PC). A 2018 amendment to the labor 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. The International Labor Organization’s Better Work Bangladesh program found 75 percent of factories had ineffective or nonfunctional PCs.
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, but 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.
The government adopted standard operating procedures regarding union registration. 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 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.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or bonded labor offenses are insufficient to deter violations. Inspection mechanisms that enforce laws against forced labor did not function effectively. Resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were inadequate. The law also provides that victims of forced labor have access to shelter and other protective services afforded to trafficking victims.
Some individuals recruited to work overseas with fraudulent employment offers subsequently were exploited abroad under conditions of forced labor or debt bondage. Many migrant workers assumed debt to pay high recruitment fees, imposed legally by recruitment agencies belonging to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies and illegally by unlicensed subagents.
Children and adults were also forced into domestic servitude and bonded labor that involved restricted movement, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse (see section 7.c.).
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law regulates child employment, and the regulations depend on the type of work and the child’s age. The 2018 amendment of the labor law establishes the minimum age for work as 14, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18, with no exceptions. The government reported all labor inspectors were notified on the amendment, including the changes to the light work provisions for children. Formerly, the law had allowed children ages 12 or 13 to perform light work. Minors may work up to five hours per day and 30 hours per week in factories and mines or up to seven hours per day and 42 per week in other types of workplaces. By law every child must attend school through eighth grade. Several factors contributed to children not attending school, such as inadequate access to water and sanitation facilities and the costs associated with education, including books and uniforms.
The Labor and Employment Ministry’s enforcement mechanisms were insufficient for the large, urban informal sector, and authorities rarely enforced child labor laws outside the export-garment and shrimp-processing sectors. Agriculture and other informal sectors that had no government oversight employed large numbers of children.
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. Children engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including forced child labor in the production of dried fish and bricks. Children also performed dangerous tasks in the production of garments and leather goods. Laws do not cover children working in the informal sector, and hazardous work prohibitions are not comprehensive. Moreover, the number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the workforce.
The law specifies penalties that were not sufficient to deter violations of child labor laws. The government occasionally brought criminal charges against employers who abused domestic servants.
Child labor was widespread in the informal sector and in domestic work. According to a 2016 Overseas Development Institute report based on a survey of 2,700 households in Dhaka’s slums, 15 percent of six- to 14-year-old children were out of school and engaged in full-time work. These children were working well beyond the 42-hour limit set by national legislation.
According to the International Labor Organization, agriculture was the primary employment sector for boys and services was the main sector for girls. According to Young Power in Social Action, an NGO working to protect the rights of shipbreakers in Chittagong, 11 percent of the shipbreaking workforce was younger than 18. NGOs, such as Shipbreaking Platform, reported laborers worked long hours without training, safety equipment, holidays, adequate health care, and also without contractual agreements.
Children frequently worked in the informal sector in areas including the unregistered garment, road transport, manufacturing, and service industries.
In 2018 the government funded and participated in programs that include the goal of eliminating or preventing child labor, including a $35 million government-funded three-year project that seeks to identify 100,000 child laborers, reintegrate the children into schools, and provide livelihood support for their parents.
Rohingya children residing in refugee camps were vulnerable to forced labor. Rohingya girls were trafficked from the camps to Dhaka or other countries for domestic servitude. Rohingya children recruited to work outside the refugee camps were reported to be underpaid or unpaid, subjected to excessive working hours, or in bonded labor.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The labor law prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of sex or disability, but it does not prohibit other discrimination based on sex, disability, social status, caste, sexual orientation, or similar factors. The constitution prohibits adverse discrimination by the state on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth and expressly extends that prohibition to government employment; it allows affirmative action programs for the benefit of disadvantaged populations.
The lower-wage garment sector traditionally offered greater employment opportunities for women. Women represented the majority of garment-sector workers, making up more than 50 percent of the total ready-made garment workforce, according to official statistics, although statistics varied widely due to a lack of data. Despite representing a majority of total workers, women were generally underrepresented in supervisory and management positions and generally earned less than their male counterparts, even when performing similar functions. A 2017 Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education Economics Institute and Oxford University study found women earned lower wages in export-oriented garment factories, even after controlling for worker productivity. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of the wage gap remained even after controlling for skills, which the study attributed to higher mobility for male workers. Women were also subjected to abuse in factories, including sexual harassment. In June a human rights NGO concluded, after conducting survey research, that 80 percent of female garment workers reported experiencing gender-based violence on the job.
In the tea industry, female workers faced discrimination. Male workers received rice rations for their female spouses, but female tea workers’ male spouses were not given rice rations, as they were not considered dependents.
Some religious, ethnic, and other minorities reported discrimination, particularly in the private sector (see section 6).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The National Minimum Wage Board established minimum monthly wages on a sector-by-sector basis. The board may convene at any time, but it is supposed to meet at least every five years in a tripartite forum to set wage structures and benefits industry by industry. During the year the board failed to include a legitimate workers’ representative. Without a workers’ representative, garment workers did not have a voice in negotiations to set the new minimum wage. By law the government may modify or amend wage structures through official public announcement in consultation with employers and workers. The minimum wage was set for $94 a month and fixed for the ready-made garment sector only. This wage was above the poverty line. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation (which averaged 6 to 8 percent annually since 2010, according to World Bank data), but the board occasionally made cost-of-living adjustments to wages in some sectors.
Wages in the apparel sector often were higher than the minimum wage, and wages in the EPZs typically were higher than general wage levels, according to the BEPZA. In November 2018 a BEPZA circular declared the minimum wages and other benefits for workers employed in different enterprises in the EPZs. Among the lowest minimum wages were those for tea packaging at 3,060 BDT ($36.14) a month, as of December 2018. A Transparency International Bangladesh report found more than 90 percent of tea worker families shared a single room with domestic animals without proper access to safe water, electricity, or health care. None of the set minimum wages provided a sufficient standard of living for urban dwellers. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation, but the board occasionally made cost-of-living adjustments to wages in some sectors.
By law a standard workday is eight hours. A standard workweek is 48 hours, but it may be extended to 60 hours, subject to the payment of an overtime allowance that is double the basic wage. Overtime cannot be compulsory. Workers must have one hour of rest if they work for more than six hours a day or a half-hour of rest for more than five hours’ work a day. Factory workers are supposed to receive one day off every week. Shop workers receive one and one-half days off per week.
The law establishes occupational health and safety standards, and amendments to the law created mandatory worker safety committees. The law states that every worker should be allowed at least 11 festival holidays with full wages in a year. The days and dates for such festivals are supposed to be fixed by the employer in consultation with the CBA, if any, or on the recommendation of the participation committee in absence of the CBA.
Labor law implementing rules outline the process for the formation of occupational safety and health committees in factories, and the government reported that approximately 2,175 safety committees were formed as of July 2018. The committees include both management and workers nominated by the CBA or, in absence of CBA, workers representatives of the factory’s worker participation committee. Where there is no union or worker participation committee, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) arranges an election among the workers for their representatives.
The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage, hours of work, overtime pay, and occupational safety and health laws. Although increased focus on the garment industry improved compliance in some garment factories, resources, inspections, and remediation were generally not adequate across sectors, and penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations. A labor rights NGO found 95 percent of factories did not comply with overtime limits.
DIFE’s resources were inadequate to inspect and remediate problems effectively. On March 4, a fire broke out at an apparel warehouse in Ashulia, damaging the entire factory. According to DIFE’s website, they last visited the factory on October 26, 2013. There were also criticisms regarding DIFE’s complaint mechanism. In the current system, a worker has to enter his or her name, position, and identity number in DIFE’s complaint form. Once received, DIFE issues a letter to factory management with reference to the complaint form. This provides inadequate protections to workers and raises doubts on the efficacy of the mechanism for filing complaints.
The 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,138 workers and injured more than 2,500. In the aftermath of the collapse, private companies, foreign governments, and international organizations worked with the government to inspect more than 3,780 garment factories. Many factories began to take action to improve safety conditions, although remediation in many cases proceeded slowly due to a range of factors, including failure to obtain adequate financing. Two initiatives formed by international brands, Nirapon (including most North American brands and continuing the work of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety) and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“Accord,” consisting mostly of European brands), continued to oversee the inspection and remediation efforts of ready-made garment factories producing for Accord and Nirapon members while government oversight of factories outside of these initiatives remained limited. The two brand-led initiatives covered only member factories in the ready-made garment industry, leaving thousands of other garment and nongarment factories without oversight. Boiler or chemical-related explosions increased the focus on nonfire industrial accidents.
In May a court-ordered memorandum of understanding established guidelines for a transition process for the Accord to begin to hand over authority to the government. In this transition the ready-made garment Sustainability Council was established, including representation from the BGMEA, international brands, and trade union federation leaders.
The court case against the owner of Rana Plaza and 40 other individuals on charges including murder began in 2016. Rana received a maximum three-year sentence for failing to declare his personal wealth to an antigraft commission. The murder trial against Rana and others repeatedly stalled, however, due to appeals and High Court stay orders.
A trial against those implicated in the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire started in 2015 after charges were brought against 13 individuals, including chairman Mahmuda Akhter and managing director Delwar Hossain, in September 2015. The case was ongoing.
Workers’ groups stated safety and health standards established by law were sufficient, and more factories took steps toward compliance. The law provides for penalties that did not deter violations. Many ready-made garment employers failed to adequately train workers on safety and hazardous materials, provide required equipment, or ensure functioning Safety Committees, all required by law.
Legal limits on hours of work were violated routinely. In the ready-made garment sector, employers often required workers to labor 12 hours a day or more to meet export deadlines, but they did not always properly compensate workers for their time. According to the Solidarity Center, workers often willingly worked overtime in excess of the legal limit. Employers in many cases delayed workers’ pay or denied full leave benefits.
Few reliable labor statistics were available on the large informal sector that employed most workers, and it was difficult to enforce labor laws in the sector. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reported 51.3 million workers in the informal labor sector in 2016, which was 86.2 percent of the total labor force.
In February a fire broke out in Chawkbazaar, a historic Dhaka neighborhood, when a compressed natural gas-powered car caught on fire. The blast ignited other cylinders used at street-side restaurants. Very quickly, a plastics store and a shop illegally storing chemicals also burst into flames. The fire–which analysts assessed may have been averted had proper building violations been addressed–killed at least 70 persons.