Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated independently, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship. Observers noted that a “culture of fear” had diminished the strength of civil society, exacerbated by threats from extremists and an increasingly entrenched leading political party. Even civil society members affiliated with the ruling party reported receiving threats of arrest from the security forces for their public criticism of government policies.
The government continued to restrict the funding and operations of the human rights organization Odhikar since the 2013 publication of an Odhikar report that many independent observers believed significantly exaggerated the government’s use of force during a Hefazat-e-Islam rally. The report included a count of resulting deaths that differed considerably from the official number and other independent estimates. Although the ACC dropped its case against Odhikar in June, Odhikar representatives continued to report harassment by government officials and security forces, including disruption of their planned events. Odhikar reported investigations into its finances that it regarded as harassment and the blockage by the NGO Affairs Bureau of foreign funds, including a grant from the European Union. Family members and Odhikar staff reported additional harassment and claimed their telephone calls, e-mails, and movements were under constant surveillance by security officers.
The government required all NGOs, including religious organizations, to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare. Local and international NGOs working on sensitive topics or groups, such as religious issues, human rights, indigenous people, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced both formal and informal governmental restrictions. In July, the State Minister for Social Welfare Nuruzzaman Ahmed told parliament that his ministry would investigate and cancel the registration for any NGO involved in “anti-state activities.” International NGOs that assist Rohingya refugees and work with organized labor reported difficulties in meeting stringent government administrative requirements. Some of these groups claimed intelligence agencies monitored them. The government sometimes restricted international NGOs’ ability to operate through delays in project registration, cease-and-desist letters, and visa refusals. Some civil society members reported repeated audits by the National Board of Revenue. The government countered NGO criticism through the media, sometimes with intimidating or threatening remarks, and through the courts (see section 1.e.). In October, NGOs discovered that the NGO Affairs Bureau posted on its public website detailed information for foreigners employed by NGOs in the country, including names, passport numbers, local addresses, e-mail addresses, and local telephone numbers, creating a significant security risk.
Following a two-year drafting process, parliament passed the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act on October 5, placing stricter control over the foreign funding of NGOs and enacting punitive provisions for those NGOs that make “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution of the country, its founding history, or constitutional bodies (i.e., government institutions and leaders). NGO leaders stated that the bill infringes on their constitutional right to freedom of expression, to which prominent MP Suranjit Sengupta responded that NGOs are not entitled to freedom of expression. NGOs also stated that the law was unclear, autocratic, subject to interpretation, and contrary to the constitution.
The law also includes a provision that will require NGOs to obtain preauthorization for obtaining funds from foreign individuals, and for NGOs’ sub-grantees to do the same, which will negatively affect the ability of some organizations to operate. The bill will also require approval and monitoring of each project by the NGO Affairs Bureau and give the director general of the bureau the authority to impose sanctions, including fines up to three times the amount of the foreign donation or closure of an NGO. Some NGOs reported that the NGO Affairs Bureau had pushed them toward service delivery and away from rights-based awareness raising or NGO capacity building.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The NHRC has seven members, including five honorary positions. Observers noted that the NHRC’s small government support staff was inadequate and underfunded. The NHRC’s primary activity was educating the public about human rights and ostensibly advising the government on key human rights issues. The International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights found that the NHRC did not fully comply with international standards for such bodies. Specifically, the coordinating committee focused on the lack of transparency in selecting NHRC commissioners and the NHRC’s lack of hiring authority over its support staff. In August, the government appointed Kazi Rezaul Haque as the new chairman of the NHRC through a process that lacked transparency and limited civil society participation.
Section 7. Worker Rights
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.
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or bonded labor offenses are five to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of not less than 50,000 taka ($625). 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 assume debt to pay high recruitment fees, imposed legally by recruitment agencies belonging to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) and illegally by unlicensed sub-agents.
Some instances of bonded labor and domestic service were reported, predominately in rural areas. Children and adults were 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 www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
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 minimum age for work is 14, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. The law allows for certain exceptions, permitting children who are ages 12 or 13 to perform restricted forms of light work. Minors can work up to five hours per day and 30 hours per week in factories or up to seven hours per day and 42 per week in other types of workplaces. By law every child must attend school through fifth grade.
The labor Ministry’s enforcement mechanisms were insufficient for the large, urban informal sector, and there was little enforcement of 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.
Under the Ministry’s 2012-2016 Child Labor National Plan of Action, the National Child Labor Welfare Council is charged with monitoring child labor. The council has only met twice, however, since its inception. The government mandated child protection networks at district and subdistrict levels to respond to a broad spectrum of violations against children, including child labor; to monitor interventions; and to develop referral mechanisms.
The law specifies penalties for violations involving child labor, including nominal fines of less than 5,000 taka ($63). These penalties were insufficient to deter violations. The government occasionally brought criminal charges against employers who abused domestic servants. MOLE filed 40 child labor cases in 2015; in general, resources, inspections, and remedial action were inadequate.
On July 10, a 10-year-old boy named Sagar Barman was killed at Zobeda Textile and Spinning Mills where he worked with his father. His father accused management in the factory of beating him and killing his son by using an air compressor to pump air into his son’s rectum; similar murders occurred in August 2015 and December 2016. The boy’s death led to discovery of 24 children working at the factory, aged between 10 and 15 years old. The Department of Inspections of Factories and Establishments (DIFE) reportedly filed a case against the factory in court, and police arrested the supervisor.
Child labor was widespread, particularly 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 6- 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. The ready-made garment industry was the main employer of these children and accounted for two thirds of female child labor.
According to the ILO, agriculture is the primary employment sector for boys and services is the main sector for girls. According to the BBS 2015 Bangladesh Child Labor Report, 3.45 million children are working and 1.28 million are employed in hazardous jobs. The BBS estimates that 17.1 percent of working children suffered verbal abuse, 1.2 percent suffered beatings, and 2.5 percent suffered sexual abuse. A recent UNICEF survey in Keranigaj found that 59 percent of an estimated 185,000 workers in the area were under the age of 18 and worked up to 17 hours per day during peak production. According to Young Power in Social Action, an NGO working to protect the rights of shipbreakers in Chittagong, 11 percent of the shipbreaking workforce is under the age of 18. NGOs, such as Shipbreaking Platform, report laborers work long hours without training, safety equipment, holidays, adequate health care, or contractual agreements. At least 16 workers died in the industry in 2015.
Children were engaged in the worst forms of child labor, primarily in dangerous activities in agriculture. Children working in agriculture risked using dangerous tools, carrying heavy loads, and applying harmful pesticides. Children frequently worked long hours, were exposed to extreme temperatures, and suffered high rates of injury from sharp tools. Children also worked in such hazardous activities as stone and brick breaking, dyeing operations, blacksmith assistance, and construction. Forced child labor was present in the fish-drying industry, where children were exposed to harmful chemicals, dangerous machines, and long hours of work. In urban areas, street children work pulling rickshaws, garbage picking, recycling, vending, begging, repairing automobiles, and working in hotels and restaurants. These children were vulnerable to exploitation, for example, in forced begging or being used to smuggle or sell drugs.
Children frequently worked in the informal sector in areas including the unregistered garment, road transport, manufacturing, and service industries.
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 has traditionally offered employment opportunities for women. Women represented the majority of garment sector workers, making up approximately 56 percent of the total RMG workforce according to official statistics although statistics varied widely due to a lack of data. The ILO estimates that women make up 65 percent of the RMG workforce. Despite representing a majority of total workers, women were generally underrepresented in supervisory and management positions. Women were subjected to abuse in factories, including sexual harassment. There were gender-based wage disparities in the overall economy, including in the garment sector.
Some religious, ethnic, and other minorities reported discrimination, particularly in the private sector (see section 6.).
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. By law, the government may modify or amend existing wage structures through official public announcement in consultation with employers and workers. In the garment industry, the board set the minimum monthly wage at 5,300 taka ($66) in 2013. Wages in the apparel sector often were higher than the minimum wage, and wages in the EPZs typically were higher than general wage levels–5,500 taka ($70) per month according to BEPZA. Among the lowest minimum wages were those for tea packaging set in 2013 at 69 taka ($0.86) per day established by a Memorandum of Understanding. None of the set minimum wages provided a sufficient standard of living for urban dwellers. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation (which averaged 7 to 8 percent annually), 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 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 eight 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 recent amendments to the law created mandatory worker safety committees. The law says that every worker should be allowed at least 11 festival holidays with full wages in a year. The days and dates for such festivals may be fixed by the employer.
Labor law implementing rules outline the process for the formation of occupational safety and health (OSH) committees in factories, and the government reports that approximately 133 safety committees were formed as of August. The committees will include both management and workers nominated by the union or the factory’s WPC. Where there is no union or WPC, the labor ministry will arrange an election among the workers for their representatives.
The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards in all sectors. 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.
MOLE resources were inadequate to inspect and remediate problems effectively, and the Ministry lacked authority to sanction employers directly without filing a court case. The Ministry nonetheless took steps to increase its staff and technical capacity. The government increased the Ministry’s budget by 370 percent in the 2014-2015 fiscal year and a further 72 percent to $4.1 million in 2015-2016. As of April, the Ministry had 277 active inspectors of which 235 had been hired after Rana Plaza. As of June 2016, MOLE reported it had approval and was in the process of hiring an additional 169 inspectors. The Public Service Commission was in the process of hiring 89 of these new inspectors at the year’s end. MOLE reported receiving 66 allegations of anti-union discrimination, of which it resolved 32. The Ministry stated in August that it received approval from the Ministry of Public Administration to upgrade the Directorate of Labor to the Department of Labor, which will increase its staff from 712 to 1,043. The upgrade is now pending approval from the Ministry of Finance.
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 3,660 garment factories, leading to 39 full and 42 partial closures of factories for imminent danger to human life as of August. Many factories began to take action to improve safety conditions, although remediation in many cases has proceeded slowly due to a range of factors, including failure to access adequate financing. The court case against Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, and 40 other individuals on charges including murder began on July 18. Witness deposition started on September 18. The trial was ongoing at year’s end.
A trial against those implicated in the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire started on January 9 after charges were brought against 13 people, including chairman Mahmuda Akhter and managing director Delwar Hossain, in September 2015. Media reported that the trial was stalled at the end of the year.
Workers’ groups stated that OSH standards established by law were sufficient and that more factories took steps toward compliance. The law provides for a maximum fine of 25,000 taka ($313) for noncompliance, but this did not deter violations.
Legal limits on hours of work were violated routinely. In the RMG 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 commonly delayed workers’ pay or denied full leave benefits. Labor Ministry inspections did not report any overtime violations.
Safety conditions at many workplaces were extremely poor, but the Solidarity Center and others reported significant safety improvements in the RMG sector. The Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense upgraded its inspection unit from 55 to 265 inspectors, who received training on developing fire safety management plans for fire, building and electrical issues in garment factories. Formal sector factories outside of the RMG industry remain largely outside the scope of safety inspectors. On September 10, an explosion and fire at Tampaco Foils factory in Gazipur killed 35 people, demonstrating continued shortcomings in safety and proper facilities oversight despite improvements made since the Rana Plaza disaster.
Few reliable labor statistics were available on the large informal sector in which the majority of citizens worked, and it was difficult to enforce labor laws in the sector. The BBS 2010 Labor Force Survey reported the informal sector employed 47.3 million of the 56.7 million workers in the country.