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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

Afghanistan is an Islamic republic with a directly elected president, a bicameral legislative branch, and a judicial branch; however, armed insurgents control some portions of the country. On September 28, Afghanistan held presidential elections after technical issues and security requirements compelled the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to reschedule the election multiple times. To accommodate the postponements, the Supreme Court extended President Ghani’s tenure. The IEC delayed the announcement of preliminary election results, originally scheduled for October 19, until December 22, due to technical challenges in vote tabulations; final results scheduled for November 7 had yet to be released by year’s end.

Three ministries share responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The Afghan National Police (ANP), under the Ministry of Interior, has primary responsibility for internal order and for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a community-based self-defense force. The Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF), also under the Ministry of Interior, investigates major crimes including government corruption, human trafficking, and criminal organizations. The Afghan National Army, under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for external security, but its primary activity is fighting the insurgency internally. The NDS functions as an intelligence agency and has responsibility for investigating criminal cases concerning national security. The investigative branch of the NDS operated a facility in Kabul, where it held national security prisoners awaiting trial until their cases went to prosecution. Some areas were outside of government control, and antigovernment forces, including the Taliban, instituted their own justice and security systems. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces, although security forces occasionally acted independently.

Armed insurgent groups conducted major attacks on civilians and targeted killings of persons affiliated with the government.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings by insurgents; extrajudicial killings by security forces; forced disappearances by security forces and antigovernment personnel; reports of torture by security forces and antigovernment entities; arbitrary detention by government security forces and insurgents; government corruption; lack of accountability and investigation in cases of violence against women, including those accused of so-called moral crimes; recruitment and use of child soldiers and sexual abuse of children, including by security force members and educational personnel; trafficking in persons; violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct.

Widespread disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses were serious, continuing problems. The government did not prosecute consistently or effectively abuses by officials, including security forces.

Antigovernment elements continued to attack religious leaders who spoke against the Taliban. During the year many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. The Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) used child soldiers as suicide bombers and to carry weapons. Other antigovernment elements threatened, robbed, kidnapped, and attacked government workers, foreigners, medical and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, and other civilians. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported 8,239 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, with 62 percent of these casualties attributed to antigovernment actors. Taliban propaganda did not acknowledge responsibility for civilian casualties, separating numbers into “invaders” and “hirelings.” The group also referred to its attacks that indiscriminately killed civilians as “martyrdom operations.”

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.

Freedom of Expression: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature is also more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms. This monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law remained inconsistent and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the Access to Information Law and that therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they seek.

Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-related figures attempting to influence how they are covered in the news. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 13 journalists were killed in connection to their work in 2018, including nine journalists killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing. Local NGO Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan released findings that violence against journalists declined by 50 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the first six months of 2018. In February, two journalists, Shafiq Arya and Rahimullah Rahmani, were shot and killed by unknown assailants at local radio station Radio Hamsada in Takhar Province.

A rapid expansion in the availability of mobile phones, the internet, and social media provided many citizens greater access to diverse views and information. The government publicly supported media freedom and cooperated with initiatives to counter security threats to media.

Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.

Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media is also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks. According to news reports, a Samaa radio station was forced to shut down its operations for the third time since 2015 because of threats from a local Taliban commander.

Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and dailies openly criticized the government. Still, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. Due to high levels of illiteracy, most citizens preferred broadcast to print or online media. A greater percentage of the population, including those in distant provinces, had access to radio over other forms of media.

Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats of violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. On May 2, Presidential Protective Service guards at the palace physically assaulted a broadcast journalist from 1TV television. In June an NDS employee beat the Ariana News reporter and cameraperson who was covering the controversial closing of an Afghan-Turk school in Kabul.

The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) reported three journalists killed in the first six months of the year. It recorded 45 cases of violence against journalists, which included killing, beating, inflicting injury and humiliation, intimidation, and detention of journalists–a 50 percent decrease from the first six months of 2018. Government-affiliated individuals or security forces were responsible for 18 instances of violence, half as many as in 2018 when 36 cases were attributed to them. Instances of violence attributed to the Taliban and ISIS-K also declined sharply from 2018–from 37 cases to seven cases. The organization insisted the reduction was not due to better protection from the government but rather due to a lower number of suicide attacks by antigovernment forces, as well as media companies’ adaptation to the reality of violence by not sending journalists for live coverage of suicide attacks and other self-imposed safety measures.

The Taliban continued to attack media organizations and warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.” In June the Taliban commission threatened media to stop transmitting “anti-Taliban advertisements” within one week or “reporters and staff members will not remain safe.”

Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals. They also reported local governmental authorities were less cooperative in facilitating access to information.

In 2016 the Office of the National Security Council approved a new set of guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The initiative created a joint national committee in Kabul and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported that, although the committee met and referred cases to the AGO, it did not increase protection for journalists.

Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the AJSC, there were no female journalists in nine provinces: Farah, Laghman, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktiya, Sar-e Pul, Uruzgan, and Zabul.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. A survey by an NGO supporting media freedom showed more than one-half of journalists were dissatisfied with the level of access to government information and found that one-third of government offices did not have dedicated offices for providing information to the public. Most requests for information from journalists who lack influential connections inside the government or international media credentials are disregarded and government officials often refuse to release information, claiming it is classified.

Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe jail sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.

National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.

Women in some areas of the country say their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited these freedoms in some instances.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without male consent or a male chaperone. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country remained the lack of security. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel. In August the Taliban captured Dasht-e-Archi District, Kunduz Province and Pul-i-Khumri District, Baghlan Province, blocking roads leading to the Kabul highway for more than two weeks.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern. The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.

Access to Asylum: The government had yet to adopt a draft national refugee law or asylum framework. Nonetheless, UNHCR registers, and mitigates protection risks of approximately 500 refugees in urban areas throughout the country. The country also hosts some 76,000 Pakistani refugees who fled Pakistan in 2014; UNHCR registered some 41,000 refugees in Khost Province and verified more than 35,000 refugees in Paktika Province.

Durable Solutions: The government did not officially accept refugees for resettlement, offer naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, or assist in their voluntary return to their homes. The IOM reported undocumented returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 504,977 from January 1 to December 29, with 485,096 from Iran and 19,881 from Pakistan. Registered refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 2,000 returns as of June 22. In addition to these numbers, there were 23,789 undocumented Afghan returnees from Turkey.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the opportunity to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The right to vote may be stripped for certain criminal offenses. For instance, in September the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) reportedly fined Border and Tribes minister Gul Agh Shirzai and removed his right to vote for improper campaign activities. Violence from the Taliban and other antigovernment groups and widespread allegations of fraud and corruption interfered with, but did not derail, the presidential election.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Reports indicated corruption was endemic throughout society, and flows of money from the military, international donors, and the drug trade continued to exacerbate the problem. Local businessmen complained government contracts were routinely steered to companies that pay a bribe or have family or other connections to a contracting official.

According to prisoners and local NGOs, corruption was widespread across the justice system, particularly in connection with the prosecution of criminal cases and in arranging release from prison. For example, as in previous years, there were multiple reports that judges would not release prisoners who had served their sentences without receiving payment from family members. There were also reports that officials received unauthorized payments in exchange for reducing prison sentences, halting investigations, or outright dismissing charges.

During the year Freedom House reported inadequately trained judges and extensive corruption in the judiciary, with judges and lawyers often subject to threats and bribes from local leaders or armed groups.

During the year there were reports of “land grabbing” by both private and public actors. Most commonly, businesses illegally obtained property deeds from corrupt officials and sold the deeds to unsuspecting prospective homeowners who were later prosecuted. Other reports indicated government officials confiscated land without compensation with the intent to exchange it for contracts or political favors. There were reports provincial governments illegally confiscated land without due process or compensation in order to build public facilities.

Corruption: UNAMA found that from the Anti-Corruption Justice Center’s (ACJC) inception in 2016 to mid-May, the ACJC tried 223 defendants in 57 cases before its trial chamber and 173 defendants in 52 cases before its appellate chamber. Of its cases against 117 accused, 36 were decided after appeal to the Supreme Court, the report stated. It also issued 127 warrants and summonses of which only 13 warrants and 39 summonses could be executed to date, with only a single defendant tried as a result. According to UNAMA, the number of defendants tried in their absence before the ACJC remained high at 20 percent. The number of cases has declined since 2017, and the rank of the accused generally dropped, although the amounts ordered by the court in compensation, restitution, and confiscation marginally increased.

A series of violent attacks by insurgents against Afghan judges, prosecutors, and prison officials during the year made members of the judicial sector increasingly fearful in carrying out their duties. According to Afghan government and media reports, since 2015 an estimated 300 judges, prosecutors, prison personnel, and other justice workers were killed, injured, or abducted. During the year at least 29 were targeted: three judges, one court clerk, three prosecutors, and 14 prison officials were killed; three prosecutors and two prison officials were injured; and three prisons officials were taken hostage. Justice professionals came under threat or attack for pursuing certain cases–particularly corruption or abuse-of-power cases–against politically or economically powerful individuals.

According to various reports, many government positions, including district or provincial governorships, ambassadors, and deputy ministers could be suborned. Government officials with reported involvement in corruption, the drug trade, or records of human rights abuses reportedly continued to receive executive appointments and served with relative impunity. Former minister of communication and information technology, Abdul Razaaq Wahidi, was accused of corruption in the form of embezzling revenue from a mobile phone tax. Although convicted by a lower court, in July an appeals court acquitted Wahidi.

There were allegations of widespread corruption, and abuse of power by officers at the Ministry of Interior. Provincial police reportedly extorted civilians at checkpoints and received kickbacks from the drug trade. Police reportedly demanded bribes from civilians to gain release from prison or avoid arrest. Senior Ministry of Interior officials also refused to sign the execution of arrest warrants. In one case Ministry of Interior officers served as the protective detail of warrant-target Major General Zamari Paikan and drove him in a Ministry of Interior armored vehicle. The Ministry of Defense also provided protection to Paikan. The ACJC convicted General Paikan in absentia for corruption in 2017 and sentenced him to 8.5 years’ imprisonment, but the Ministry of Interior had yet to arrest him by year’s end.

On August 15, former Kabul Bank chief executive Khalilullah Ferozi was released to house arrest reportedly for health reasons. Presidential candidate and former NDS head Rahmatullah Nabil alleged that the release came after a $30 million donation to President Ghani’s re-election campaign. Following the bank’s collapse in 2010, Ferozi was convicted in 2013 and ordered, along with bank founder Sherkhan Farnood, to repay more than $800 million in embezzled funds. Ferozi’s release came with less than a year left in his sentence. Farnood died in prison in 2018.

Financial Disclosure: A 2017 legislative decree established the Administration on Registration and Assets of Government Officials and Employees (Registration Administration) under the administrative office of the president. All government officials, employees, and elected officials are required to declare their assets. The Registration Administration was responsible for collecting, verifying, and publishing information from high-ranking government officials. Under the law all government officials and employees must submit financial disclosures on all sources and levels of personal income for themselves and their immediate family annually and when they assume or leave office. Individuals who do not submit forms or are late in submission are subject to suspension of employment, salary, and travel bans. The AGO imposed travel bans on individuals who did not submit their forms; however, the bans were not regularly enforced, especially for high-level officials. For instance, although the website of the Administrative Office of the Palace showed several high-ranking government officials failed to register their assets, it was public knowledge they frequently travelled internationally. Employment and salary bans were not imposed.

As of April the Registration Administration successfully registered assets of nearly 17,000 government employees. Verification of assets continued to be slow and problematic for the administration due to lack of organized systems in some government offices. Public outreach by the Registration Administration allowed civil society and private citizen the opportunity to comment on individual declarations. As of April, 141 members of the lower house of parliament declared their assets and 68 members of the upper house of parliament registered their assets.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Human rights activists continued to express concern that human rights abusers remained in positions of power within the government.

The penal code incorporates crimes against humanity provisions from the Rome Statute.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitutionally mandated AIHRC continued to address human rights problems, but it received minimal government funding and relied almost exclusively on international donor funds. The independence of the institution was called into question following the abrupt replacement of all nine commissioners on July 17, immediately prior to the July 28 start of the presidential campaign and after the presidential palace rejected a list of 27 candidates submitted by the AIHRC Appointment Committee nine months prior. UNAMA released a statement calling for a “truly independent national human rights institution.” Three Wolesi Jirga committees deal with human rights: the Gender, Civil Society, and Human Rights Committee; the Counternarcotic, Intoxicating Items, and Ethical Abuse Committee; and the Judicial, Administrative Reform, and Anticorruption Committee. In the Meshrano Jirga, the Committee for Gender and Civil Society addresses human rights concerns.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to join and form independent unions and to conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, and the government generally respected these rights, although it lacked enforcement tools. The law, however, provides no definition of a union or its relationship with employers and members, nor does it establish a legal method for union registration or penalties for violations. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Other than protecting the right to participate in a union, the law provides no other legal protection for union workers or workers seeking to unionize.

Although the law identifies the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Labor High Council as the highest decision-making body on labor-related issues, the lack of implementing regulations prevented the council from performing its function. There was an inspection office within the ministry, but inspectors could only advise and make suggestions. As a result the application of labor law remained limited because of a lack of central enforcement authority, implementing regulations that describe procedures and penalties for violations, funding, personnel, and political will.

The government allowed several unions to operate, but it interfered with the National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees. The government issued a decree in 2016 mandating the nationalization of property belonging to several trade unions. Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were sometimes respected, but most workers were not aware of these rights. This was particularly true of workers in rural areas or the agricultural sector, who had not formed unions. In urban areas the majority of workers participated in the informal sector as day laborers in construction, where there were neither unions nor collective bargaining.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not sufficiently criminalize forced labor and debt bondage. Men, women, and children are exploited in bonded labor, where an initial debt assumed by a worker as part of the terms of employment is exploited, ultimately entrapping other family members, sometimes for multiple generations. This type of debt bondage is common in the brickworks industry. Some families knowingly sold their children into sex trafficking, including for bacha bazi (see section 7.c.).

Government enforcement of the law was ineffective; resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate; and the government made minimal efforts to prevent and eliminate forced labor. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

Also, 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 labor law sets the minimum age for employment at 15 years but permits 14-year-olds to work as apprentices, allows children 15 years old and older to do light nonhazardous work, and permits 15- through 17-year-old children to work up to 35 hours per week. The law prohibits children younger than 14 years from working under any circumstances; that law was openly flouted, with poverty driving many children into the workforce. The law also bans the employment of children in hazardous work that is likely to threaten their health or cause disability, including mining and garbage collection; work in blast furnaces, waste-processing plants, and large slaughterhouses; work with hospital waste; drug-related work; security-guard services; and work related to war.

Poor institutional capacity was a serious impediment to effective enforcement of the labor law. Labor inspectors do not have legal authority to inspect worksites for compliance with child labor laws or impose penalties for non-compliance. Other deficiencies included the lack of penalty assessment authorization for labor inspectors, inadequate resources, labor inspector staffing, inspections, remediation, and penalties for violations.

Child labor remained a pervasive problem. Child laborers worked as domestic servants, street vendors, peddlers, and shopkeepers. There was child labor in the carpet industry, brick kilns, coalmines, and poppy fields. Children were also heavily engaged in the worst forms of child labor in mining, including mining salt; commercial sexual exploitation including bacha bazi (see section 6, Children); transnational drug smuggling; and organized begging rings. Some forms of child labor exposed children to land mines. Children faced numerous health and safety risks at work. There were reports of recruitment of children by the ANDSF during the year. Taliban forces pressed children to take part in hostile acts (see section 6, Children).

Also, see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings , and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination and notes that citizens, both “man and woman,” have equal rights and duties before the law. It expressly prohibits discrimination based on language. The constitution contains no specific provisions addressing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, disability, or age. The penal code prescribes a term of imprisonment of not more than two years for anyone convicted of spreading discrimination or factionalism.

Women continued to face discrimination and hardship in the workplace. Women made up only 7 percent of the workforce. Many women faced pressure from relatives to stay at home and encountered hiring practices that favored men. Older and married women reported it was more difficult for them than for younger, single women to find jobs. Women who worked reported they encountered insults, sexual harassment, lack of transportation, and an absence of day care facilities. Salary discrimination existed in the private sector. Female journalists, social workers, and police officers reported they were often threatened or abused. Persons with disabilities also suffered from discrimination in hiring.

Ethnic Hazaras, Sikhs, and Hindus faced discrimination in hiring and work assignments, in addition to broader social discrimination (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage rates for workers in the nonpermanent private sector and for government workers were below the poverty line.

The law defines the standard workweek for both public- and private-sector employees as 40 hours: eight hours per day with one hour for lunch and noon prayers. The labor law makes no mention of day workers in the informal sector, leaving them completely unprotected. There are no occupational health and safety regulations or officially adopted standards. The law, however, provides for reduced standard workweeks for children ages 15 to 17, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and miners and workers in other occupations that present health risks. The law provides workers with the right to receive wages, annual vacation time in addition to national holidays, compensation for on-the-job injuries, overtime pay, health insurance for the employee and immediate family members, and other incidental allowances. The law prohibits compulsory work without establishing penalties and stipulates that overtime work be subject to the agreement of the employee. The law also requires employers to provide day care and nurseries for children.

The government did not effectively enforce these laws. Inspectors had no legal authority to enter premises or impose penalties for violations. Resources, inspections, remediation, and penalties for violations were inadequate and insufficient to deter violations.

Employers often chose not to comply with the law or preferred to hire workers informally. Most employees worked longer than 40 hours per week, were frequently underpaid, and worked in poor conditions, particularly in the informal sector. Workers were generally unaware of the full extent of their labor rights under the law. Although comprehensive data on workplace accidents were unavailable, there were several reports of poor and dangerous working conditions. Some industries, such as brick kiln facilities, continued to use debt bondage, making it difficult for workers to remove themselves from situations of forced labor that endangered their health or safety.

Angola

Executive Summary

Angola is a constitutional republic. In August 2017 the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party won presidential and legislative elections with 61 percent of the vote. MPLA presidential candidate Joao Lourenco took the oath of office for a five-year term in September 2017, and the MPLA retained a supermajority in the National Assembly. Domestic and international observers reported polling throughout the country was peaceful and generally credible, although the ruling party enjoyed advantages due to state control of major media and other resources. The Constitutional Court rejected opposition parties’ legal petitions alleging irregularities during the provincial-level vote count and a lack of transparent decision-making by the National Electoral Commission.

The national police, controlled by the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for internal security and law enforcement. The Criminal Investigation Services (SIC), also under the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for preventing and investigating domestic crimes. The Expatriate and Migration Services and the Border Guard Police, in the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for migration law enforcement. The state intelligence and security service reports to the presidency and investigates sensitive state security matters. The Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) are responsible for external security but also have domestic security responsibilities, including border security, expulsion of irregular migrants, and small-scale actions against Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda separatists in Cabinda. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the FAA and the national police, and the government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. The security forces generally were effective, although sometimes brutal, at maintaining stability.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by government security forces; arbitrary detention by security forces; political prisoners; refoulement of refugees; corruption, although the government took significant steps to end impunity for senior officials; crimes of violence against women and girls, which the government took little action to prevent or prosecute; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving societal violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, although parliament passed landmark legislation prohibiting discrimination against LGBTI persons.

The government took significant steps to prosecute or punish officials who committed abuses. It also dismissed and prosecuted cabinet ministers, provincial governors, senior military officers, and other officials for corruption and financial crimes. Nevertheless, accountability for human rights abuses was limited due to a lack of checks and balances, lack of institutional capacity, a culture of impunity, and government corruption.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. State media continued to be the country’s primary source for news and generally reflected a progovernment view. Nevertheless, individuals were increasingly able to use private media and social media platforms to openly criticize government policies and practices.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals reported practicing self-censorship but generally were able to criticize government policies without fear of direct reprisal. Social media was widely used in the larger cities and provided an open forum for discussion.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Private radio and print media criticized the government openly and access to private media was expanding to outside the capital. For example, the private Catholic radio station Radio Ecclesia expanded its coverage from one to 15 provinces, and private media were on the internet. Journalists routinely complained of lack of transparency and communication from government press offices and other government officials.

The president appoints the leadership of all major state-owned media outlets and state control of these outlets often led to one-sided reporting. State news outlets, including Angolan Public Television (TPA), Radio Nacional, and the Jornal de Angola newspaper, favored the ruling party but increased their coverage of opposition political parties’ perspectives and social problems reflecting poor governance during the year. The TPA continued to broadcast plenary sessions of the National Assembly live, including interventions by opposition parties. The channel also continued to invite opposition politicians and civil society members to comment live on stories featured on the nightly news, but private stations were prohibited from filming parliament. Opposition parties also received far less overall coverage on state media than did the ruling party.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists reported fewer incidents of violence or harassment compared with the previous year.

On June 20, relatives of the defendants in the court case of former minister of transportation Augusto Tomas and four others charged with corruption threatened the journalists covering the event while they were in the lobby awaiting the beginning of the court session. In response the head of the Angolan Journalists Union urged his colleagues to press charges against those who try to intimidate journalists.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Regulatory Entity for Social Communication (ERCA), a body mandated to license and delicense journalists and determine what constitutes appropriate media content, remained largely inactive.

Journalists reported practicing self-censorship for political and financial reasons.

The minister of social communication, the spokesperson of the presidency, and the national director of information maintained significant decision-making authority over media. It was commonly understood these individuals actively vetted news stories in the state-controlled print, television, and radio media and exercised considerable authority over some privately owned outlets. State-controlled media rarely published or broadcast stories critical of the ruling party, government officials, or government policies. Coverage critical of the previous government of Jose Eduardo dos Santos and of senior-level officials who had been dismissed on allegations of corruption increased significantly during the year.

Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a crime for which conviction is punishable by imprisonment or a fine, and unlike in most cases in which defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, defendants in defamation cases have the burden of proving their innocence by providing evidence of the validity of the allegedly damaging material.

Several journalists in print media, radio, and political blogs faced libel and defamation lawsuits. Journalists complained the government used libel laws to limit their ability to report on corruption and nepotistic practices, while the government assessed that some journalists abused their positions and published inaccurate stories regarding government officials without verifying the facts or providing the accused the right of reply.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government at times restricted these rights.

In-country Movement: Document checkpoints in domestic airports and on roads throughout the country were common. Reports by local NGOs suggested that, in spite of an incremental drop in cases, some police officers continued to extort money from civilians at checkpoints and during regular traffic stops. Reports from the diamond-mining provinces of Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul indicated some government agents restricted the movements of local communities.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

There were reports throughout the year that Lunda Norte provincial authorities exerted pressure on irregular migrants and refugees to return to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The government failed to provide adequate protection for asylum seekers and urban refugees.

In November 2018 security forces launched Operation Rescue, a nationwide law enforcement campaign to address violent crime, illegal migration, unlicensed commercial and religious activity, and road accidents. The campaign continued throughout the year. It acutely affected both legal and undocumented migrants, refugees, and stateless persons who rely on the informal markets to make a living, as job opportunities were limited and the law prohibits refugees from operating businesses. Political opposition parties and civil society organizations also criticized the operation for restricting religious freedom, including the closure of an estimated 2,500 places of worship.

The government did not implement key elements of the 2015 asylum law, which impeded refugee and asylum seekers’ access to basic services and documents, such as birth certificates for children of foreign-born parents. NGOs working with refugee and asylum-seeker populations continued to cite security force harassment of and government discrimination against those communities.

The government generally cooperated with UNHCR, the World Food Program, and NGOs to protect and assist refugees. In August and September, the government supported a voluntary spontaneous repatriation of more than 15,000 refugees from Lunda Norte to the DRC. The government cooperated with UNHCR and the government of the DRC to respond to the humanitarian crisis and provided transportation for the spontaneous returnees. UNHCR estimated more than 8,000 refugees remained at its Lovua, Lunda Norte, resettlement camp.

Access to Asylum: The 2015 asylum law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, but the law had not been implemented. The law provides specific procedures for the submission of an asylum application and guidance on the determination of asylum and refugee cases. UNHCR and several NGOs reported that asylum seekers and urban refugees did not have a mechanism to apply for or resolve their status. The 2015 law changed the role of the Committee for the Recognition of the Right to Asylum, the prior implementing mechanism to identify, verify, and legalize asylum seekers, to that of an advisory board; however, at year’s end the government had not put into practice an alternative mechanism to adjudicate asylum and refugee cases in the committee’s place. The law also established the creation of reception centers for refugees and asylum seekers where they are to receive assistance until the government makes a decision on their cases.

Freedom of Movement: UNHCR, NGOs, and refugees reported restrictions on freedom of movement in Lunda Norte Province. Police arbitrarily arrested or detained refugees and confiscated or ripped up their registration documents during periodic roundups, particularly in Dundo, the provincial capital. Refugees also reported periodic restrictions on freedom of movement from their resettlement site in Lovua, Lunda Norte Province and cited such restrictions a factor motivating them to return to the DRC.

Employment: Formal restrictions on a refugee’s ability to seek employment existed. Regulation 273/13 restricted refugees from obtaining the business license required to own and operate a business. Refugees often faced difficulty obtaining employment due to their inability to obtain legal documents required to work in the formal sector. A general lack of acceptance of the refugee card and lack of knowledge concerning the rights it was intended to safeguard compounded the difficulties.

Access to Basic Services: Persons with recognized refugee status could at times obtain public services. UNHCR, NGOs, and refugees, however, reported that urban refugees in particular were unable to obtain legal documents following passage of the asylum law and at times faced difficulty accessing public services such as health care and education. Corruption by officials compounded these difficulties.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

On January 23, the government approved a new penal code on corruption that directly regulates modern financial crimes and increases penalties for corrupt officials. At year’s end the new penal code had not entered into force. During the year President Lourenco dismissed cabinet ministers, provincial governors, senior military officers, and other high-level government officials due to alleged corrupt practices. The PGR launched significantly more corruption investigations and brought criminal charges against several officials. Official impunity and the uniform application of anticorruption legislation, however, remained a serious problem. President Lourenco continued to stress that ending impunity for corruption was among his administration’s top priorities.

Corruption: Government corruption at all levels was widespread, but accountability improved incrementally due to increased focus on developing better checks and balances and institutional capacity. On February 23, the PGR reported 604 cases involving public officials and political leaders suspected of corruption. Several high-profile cases including that of the son of the former president, Jose Filomeno dos Santos, the director of security and counterintelligence general Antonio Jose Maria, and former Luanda governor and current member of parliament (MP) Higino Carneiro were all under investigation or awaiting trial.

On August 16, former minister of transport Augusto da Silva Tomas was sentenced to 14 years in prison for embezzlement, misappropriation of public funds, abuse of power, and violating budgeting standards at the National Council of Shippers, a state international shipping regulator. Tomas was tried along with four former shipping officials, three of whom also received sentences ranging from 10 to 12 years.

On December 30, the Luanda Provincial Court preemptively froze all Angolan accounts and assets owned by former first daughter Isabel dos Santos, her husband Sindika Dokolo, and businessman Mario Leite da Silva on suspicion that the assets originated from state funds obtained unlawfully. At year’s end the government had yet to file any criminal charges.

Government ministers and other high-level officials commonly and openly owned interests in public and private companies regulated by, or doing business with, their respective ministries. Laws and regulations regarding conflict of interest exist, but they were not enforced. Petty corruption among police, teachers, and other government employees was widespread. Police extorted money from citizens and refugees, and prison officials extorted money from family members of inmates.

Financial Disclosure: The law on public probity requires senior government officials, magistrates and public prosecutors as well as managers of public companies to declare their assets held domestically and abroad to the attorney general. The president and vice president were the first to submit their declarations in January 2018. Asset declarations are only disclosed for criminal, disciplinary, and administrative purposes and require a judicial warrant.

According to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, the financial information of government officials was provided to the appropriate government office. The law treats these reports as confidential. Government officials are to make a declaration within 30 days of assuming a post and every two years thereafter. The law does not stipulate a declaration be made upon leaving office but states that officials must return all government property within 60 days.

Penalties for noncompliance with the law on public probity vary depending on which section of the law was violated, but they include removal from office, a bar from government employment for three to five years, a ban on contracting with the government for three years, repayment of the illicitly gained assets, and a fine of up to 100 times the value of the accepted bribe. The National Office of Economic Police is responsible for investigating violations of this law, as well as other financial and economic crimes, and then referring them to the Financial Court for prosecution. There were no known cases related to this law during the year.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated throughout the country. Some of those investigating government corruption and human rights abuses alleged government interference in their activities particularly in provinces outside of Luanda. Civil society organizations faced fewer difficulties in contacting detainees than in previous years, and prison authorities permitted civil society work in the prisons.

The Law of Associations requires NGOs to specify their mandate and areas of activity. The government used this provision to prevent or discourage established NGOs from engaging in certain activities, especially those that the government deemed politically sensitive.

The government allowed local NGOs to carry out human rights-related work, but many NGOs reported they were forced to limit the scope of their work because they faced problems registering, were subject to subtle forms of intimidation, and risked more serious forms of harassment and closure.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The state-funded Interministerial Commission for the Writing of Human Rights Reports includes only representatives from various government ministries. Leading civil society members decided not to participate on the commission because they did not believe it was independent or effective.

The 10th Commission on Human Rights of the National Assembly is charged with investigating citizen complaints of alleged human rights violations and makes recommendations to the National Assembly.

An Office of the Ombudsman existed to mediate between an aggrieved public, including prisoners, and an offending public office or institution. The office did not cover the entire country and had neither decision-making nor adjudicative powers, but it helped citizens obtain access to justice, advised government entities on citizen rights, and published reports.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers, except members of the armed forces, police, firefighters, members of sovereign bodies, and public prosecutors to form and join independent unions. To establish a trade union, at least 30 percent of workers in an economic sector in a province must follow a registration process and obtain authorization from government officials. The law provides for the right to collective bargaining except in the civil service. The law prohibits strikes by members of the armed forces, police, prosecutors and magistrates of the PGR, prison staff, fire fighters, public-sector employees providing “essential services,” and oil workers. Essential services are broadly defined, including the transport sector, communications, waste management and treatment, and fuel distribution. In exceptional circumstances involving national interests, authorities have the power to requisition workers in the essential services sector.

While the law allows unions to conduct their activities without government interference, it also places some restrictions on their ability to strike. Before engaging in a strike, workers must negotiate with their employer for at least 20 days prior to a work stoppage. Should they fail to negotiate, the government may deny the right to strike. The government may intervene in labor disputes that affect national security and energy sectors. Collective labor disputes are to be settled through compulsory arbitration by the Ministry of Public Administration, Employment, and Social Security. The law prohibits employer retribution against strikers, but it permits the government to force workers back to work for “breaches of worker discipline” or participation in unauthorized strikes. Nonetheless, the law prohibits antiunion discrimination and stipulates that worker complaints should be adjudicated in the labor court. The Ministry of Public Administration, Employment, and Social Security had a hotline and two service centers in Luanda for workers who believed their rights had been violated. By law employers are required to reinstate workers who have been dismissed for union activities.

During the year there were several strikes in the public and private sector over disputes between employers and workers. There were also allegations of retribution against strikers during the year.

In January, April, and May, workers of the state-owned Luanda Railways staged several strikes demanding better working conditions and salaries. On May 13, police wounded at least 12 strikers who blocked a train that was operating as part of the legally required minimum train service. Three strikers were detained and fined. Strikers also alleged police coerced several strikers to return to work. Some, but not all, of the union’s demands were met following the strike.

The government generally did not effectively enforce applicable labor laws. Labor courts functioned but were overburdened by a backlog of cases and inadequate resources. The law provides for penalties for violations of the labor code and labor contracts, but the penalties were not an effective deterrent due to the inefficient functioning of the courts.

Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not generally respected. Government approval is required to form and join unions, which were hampered by membership and legalization issues. Labor unions, independent of those run by the government, worked to increase their influence, but the ruling MPLA continued to dominate the labor movement due to historical connections between the party and labor, and also the superior financial base of the country’s largest labor union (which also constitutes the labor wing of the MPLA). The government is the country’s largest employer, and the Ministry of Public Administration, Employment, and Social Security mandated government worker wages with no negotiation with the unions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor and sets sufficiently stringent penalties.

The government did not effectively enforce the law due in part to an insufficient number of inspectors and to systemic corruption.

Forced labor of men and women occurred in fisheries, agriculture, construction, domestic service, and artisanal diamond-mining sectors, particularly in Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul Provinces. Migrant workers were subject to seizure of passports, threats, denial of food, and confinement. The government continued to make use of a training video for law enforcement and immigration officials that included a short segment on how to identify victims of trafficking, although this was not the sole objective of the film. INAC continued working to reduce the number of children traveling to agricultural areas in the country’s southern regions to work on farms, mostly through community outreach concerning the importance of an education.

Forced child labor increased in the southern provinces that suffered a severe drought during the year. In certain villages in Cunene, children were forced to leave school and to work as herders or to dig wells and fetch water.

See also 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 prohibits children younger than 14 from working. To obtain an employment contract, the law requires youth to submit evidence they are 14 years of age or older. Children can work from age 14 to age 16 with parental permission, or without parental consent if they are married, and the work does not interfere with schooling or harm the physical, mental, and moral development of the minor. The law also allows orphan children who want to work to get official permission in the form of a letter from “an appropriate institution,” but it does not specify the type of institution. The Ministry of Public Administration, Employment, and Social Security; the Ministry of Social Assistance, Families, and Women’s Promotion; the Ministry of Interior; the Ministry of Labor; INAC; and the national police are the entities responsible for enforcement of child labor laws. The Ministry of Labor continued to implement its National Action Plan for the Eradication of Child Labor for 2018-22, which aims to map the most prevalent zones and types of child labor in the country to strengthen coordination of child labor investigations, prosecutions, and the imposition of criminal penalties. An interministerial commission to combat trafficking in persons and child labor was created in 2014 to coordinate enforcement actions. The government had difficulty monitoring the large informal sector, where most child labor occurred.

Inspectors are authorized to conduct surprise inspections whenever they see fit. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations. The government did not consistently enforce the law, however; child labor, especially in the informal sector, remained a problem. In the first trimester of the year, INAC registered 700 cases of hazardous child labor involving the handling of chemicals, stones, and bricks and reported the cases to law enforcement. The Ministry of Public Administration, Employment, and Social Security had oversight of formal work sites in all 18 provinces, but it was unknown whether inspectors checked on the age of workers or conditions of work sites. If the ministry determined a business was using child labor, it transferred the case to the Ministry of Interior to investigate and possibly press charges. It was not known whether the government fined any businesses for using child labor.

Children engaged in economic activities such as agricultural labor on family farms and commercial plantations–particularly in orchards–as well as in fishing, brick making, artisanal diamond mining, charcoal production, domestic labor, and street vending. Exploitive labor practices included involvement in the sale, transport, and offloading of goods in ports and across border posts. Children were forced to act as couriers in the illegal cross-border trade with Namibia. Adult criminals sometimes used children for forced criminal activity, since the justice system prohibits youths younger than 12 from being tried in court.

Street work by children was common, especially in the provinces of Luanda, Benguela, Huambo, Huila, and Kwanza Sul. Investigators found children working in the streets of Luanda, but many returned during the weekends to some form of dwelling in Luanda or outlying cities. Most of these children shined shoes, washed cars, carried water and other goods, or engaged in other informal labor, but some resorted to petty crime and begging. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred as well (see section 6).

The government, through INAC, worked to create, train, and strengthen child protection networks at the provincial and municipal levels in all 18 provinces. No central mechanism existed to track cases or provide statistics. The government also dedicated resources to the expansion of educational and livelihood opportunities for children and their families.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The labor law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on race, sex, religion, disability, or language, and the government in general effectively enforced the law in the formal sector. The International Labor Organization noted the law did not clearly define discrimination, however. The constitution prohibits all forms of discrimination, although it does not specifically address sexual orientation or gender identity (see section 6). On January 23, the National Assembly passed a penal code that decriminalizes same-sex sexual relations and makes it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. At year’s end the penal code, which parliament passed in January, had not been published or entered into force. The law provides for equal pay for equal work, but gender pay disparities in the country were among the highest in the world. Women held ministerial posts.

The government did not effectively implement the law. There were no known prosecutions of official or private-sector gender-based discrimination in employment or occupation. Persons with disabilities found it difficult to gain access to public or private facilities, and it was difficult for such persons to participate in the education system and thus find employment. Reports during the year indicated that persons with albinism also experienced discrimination in employment and access to public services. There were no known prosecutions for discrimination in employment. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

Discrimination against foreign workers also occurred.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

A minimum wage for the formal sector exists and varies by sector. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights raised concerns about the wide disparities of minimum wage by sector and the possibility this may undervalue work in woman-dominated sectors. The lowest minimum wage was for agricultural work and was set below the UN Development Program’s official line of poverty. The minimum wage for the formal sector may be updated annually or when the government assesses economic conditions warrant. The minimum wage law does not cover workers in informal sectors, such as street vendors and subsistence farmers.

The standard workweek in the private sector is 44 hours, while in the public sector it is 37 hours. In both sectors the law mandates at least one unbroken period of 24 hours of rest per week. In the private sector, when employees engage in shift work or a variable weekly schedule, they may work up to 54 hours per week before the employer must pay overtime. In the formal sector, there is a prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime, defined as more than two hours a day, 40 hours a month, or 200 hours a year. The law also provides for paid annual holidays. By law employers must provide, at a minimum, a bonus amounting to 50 percent of monthly salary to employees each year in December and an annual vacation. Workweek standards were not enforced unless employees filed a formal complaint with the Ministry of Public Administration, Employment, and Social Security. Labor law protected foreign workers with permanent legal status or a temporary work visa.

The government effectively enforced the minimum wage law within the formal labor sector, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Most workers in the informal sector were not covered by wage or occupational safety standards. An estimated 60 percent of the economy derived from the informal sector, and most wage earners held second jobs or depended on the agricultural or other informal sectors to augment their incomes.

A 2016 presidential decree established minimum employment standards for domestic workers, including national minimum wage protection, an eight-hour work day for domestic workers living outside of their employer’s home, a 10-hour work day for domestic workers living inside their employer’s home, compulsory employer contributions to a domestic worker’s social security protection, and maternity and holiday allowances. The Ministry of Public Administration, Employment, and Social Security is charged with implementing and enforcing the law. An insufficient number of adequately trained labor inspectors hampered enforcement efforts. Some companies received advance warning of impending labor inspections.

The labor law requires a safe work environment in all sectors of the economy. Employees have the right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions and may file a formal complaint with the Ministry of Public Administration, Employment, and Social Security if employers insist they perform hazardous tasks. The government enforced occupational safety and health standards and investigated private company operations based on complaints made by NGOs and labor unions. On May 27, the General Labor Inspector of Lunda Sul reported that 10 companies were charged and fined for violating health and safety labor laws in the first quarter of the year.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

Bangladesh’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government in which most power resides in the Office of the Prime Minister. Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) party won a third consecutive five-year term, keeping her in office as prime minister, in an improbably lopsided December 2018 parliamentary election that was not considered free and fair and was marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. During the campaign there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. International election monitors were not issued accreditation and visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission, and only seven of the 22 Election Working Group nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were approved to conduct domestic election observation.

The security forces encompassing the national police, border guards, and counterterrorism units such as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) maintain internal and border security. The military, primarily the army, is responsible for national defense but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The security forces report to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the military reports to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary or unlawful detentions by the government or on its behalf; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights activists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive NGO laws and restrictions on the activities of NGOs; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, where elections were not found to be genuine, free, or fair; significant acts of corruption; criminal violence against women and girls; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting indigenous people; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; restrictions on independent trade unions and workers’ rights; and the use of the worst forms of child labor.

There were reports of widespread impunity for security force abuses. The government took few measures to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and killing by security forces.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.

The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad powers of interpretation. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The 2016 Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies. The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act references defamation of individuals and organizations and was used to prosecute opposition figures and civil society.

The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrimes, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. Human rights groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA for suppressing freedom of expression and criminalizing free speech.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government experienced negative government pressure. In October the World Economic Forum found press freedom declined over the past year.

The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge. Civil society organizations said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced a threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as social stigma associated with having a criminal record.

On October 21, police arrested Munir Uddin Ahmed, a district correspondent of the newspaper New Nation and former general secretary of Khulna Press Club, in a case filed under the DSA for mistakenly posting on his Facebook a photograph of the Chittagong Metropolitan police commissioner instead of the Bhola superintendent of police. Although the court twice denied Ahmed’s bail, the Khulna Metropolitan Magistrate court rejected a police request to interrogate him. Observers commented police interrogation–known as remand–occasionally involved mistreatment of the detained. Ahmed remained in prison at year’s end.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media outlets alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. Reporters without Border alleged media self-censorship was growing due to “endemic violence” against journalists and media outlets and the “almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.”

Privately owned newspapers, however, usually enjoyed freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists reportedly received threats after publishing their stories.

According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.

On January 2, the newspaper Daily Star reported the government detained Khulna reporter Hedait Hossain Molla to investigate accusations he violated the DSA by reporting “false information” about the number of votes cast from Khulna during the 2018 general elections. Following the elections, Molla reported that official initial elections results showed the number of votes cast was higher than the number of eligible voters. A Khulna elections official later corrected the official vote tally, lowering the number of votes cast, but reporters had already published their stories. Molla was then arrested under the DSA for spreading false information. Although Molla was released on bail, he was obliged to appear regularly before the court, since the case remained active.

Journalists claimed the government penalized media that criticized the government or broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. In April the government cancelled the publishing rights of Juger Chinta, a daily newspaper in Narayanganj. This move sparked a human chain protest in Narayanganj. Journalists claimed the government penalized Juger Chinta because it published reports criticizing the ruling party’s local member of parliament (MP).

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. The DSA provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. As of July a total of 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the act with more than 80 individuals arrested.

In March law enforcement arrested Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Council member Mahfuza Khter Kiron for allegedly defaming the prime minister after saying on a television talk show that Prime Minister Hasina was neglecting football in the country in favor of cricket, maintaining a double standard rewarding the cricket team’s successes, but ignoring those of the football team. In April, Kiron was granted bail, but the charges against her were not dropped.

Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners.

In-country Movement: The government is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not bound under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this document.

The government did not recognize the new Rohingya arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was that the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country. While the refugees were able to move largely unrestricted in the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts, the government established checkpoints to prevent their movement outside this area.

Foreign Travel: Some senior civil society representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country. The country’s passports are invalid for travel to Israel, according to government policy.

f. Protection of Refugees

Prior to the August 2017 Rohingya influx, the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, approximately one million Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. According to the United Nations, more than half of the population was younger than 18 years old. A National Task Force, established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinated the Rohingya response with support from the Bangladesh Army and Border Guard Bangladesh. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner provided coordination.

The government temporarily deployed the military to Cox’s Bazar District in the fall of 2017 to streamline relief activities and to assist in registration of Rohingya in coordination with the civilian administration. In response to growing security concerns, the military again became more active in the refugee camps. In September the Ministry of Home Affairs announced the army would begin taking over security tasks the police and other law enforcement agencies had held since 2017. In the same month, the government introduced restrictions on telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar. This move limited access to mobile and internet service in and around camps and hampered emergency response and coordination of life-saving services, including the Protection Hotline for reporting incidents of violence or abuse.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. As of August the IOM identified 96 Rohingya trafficking victims from the camps, the overwhelming majority for labor exploitation. While the majority of the victims were women and girls, there were indications many Rohingya men and boys did not self-identify, nor did they seek services following their return. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.

International organizations reported an increase in gender-based violence directed against women in the camps, with intimate partner violence comprising an overwhelming majority–approximately 70 to 80 percent–of the cases. International organizations warned the numbers could increase further if the dearth of livelihood and educational opportunities for Rohingya men continued.

Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous in practice and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating the trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.

Refoulement: According to UNHCR, the government sent six Rohingya back to Burma in September in a possible incident of refoulement. There were no other reported cases of potential refoulement or forced repatriation. On August 22, authorities sent buses to selected Rohingya camps to pick up and transport anyone ready to return to Burma. They called off the initiative when no refugees volunteered. Several times during the year, senior government officials reaffirmed the country’s commitment to voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable refugee returns, based on informed consent. On September 27, at the United Nations, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina underscored voluntariness and safety as necessary requirements for any repatriation.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees resident in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese address. The government was working jointly with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s commitment against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded refugees’ access to the justice system, leading to underreporting of cases of abuse and exploitation and impunity for traffickers and other criminals.

Freedom of Movement: There continued to be restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside the two camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and new arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. In November the government began erecting fencing to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling.

Many camp authorities introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.

Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work schemes for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers in the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor trafficking victims.

Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the many actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites that were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies made significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remained a central issue that hindered the ability of Rohingya to access basic services.

Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; it does not confer recognition or certification of students having attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. Rahima Akter, a Rohingya woman, hid her identity to enroll in Cox’s Bazar International University to study law. In October 2018 Rahima was featured in a video by the Associated Press in which she discussed her dreams to study human rights. The video went viral and revealed her identity. In September the university expelled her for being Rohingya.

Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya formal and regular access to public health care but Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information about all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Corruption remained a serious problem. In July the ACC chairman stated the commission suffered from a crisis of public trust, since most of the ACC’s investigations were only against petty instances of corruption.

The ACC leadership were also suspected in corruption. In July, Khandaker Enamul Basir, a former ACC director, was arrested on charges of bribery in a corruption case involving top-ranking Deputy Inspector General of Police Miznur Rahman. The ACC found Rahman earned 4.63 crore BDT ($550,000) between 1998 and 2018, but only 1.35 crore BDT ($160,000) came from legal sources. Rahman claimed Basir accepted a bribe to clear Rahman of graft allegations, an accusation that led to Basir’s removal from the ACC and arrest.

In August 2018 parliament enacted a law prohibiting the arrest of any public servant by the ACC without permission from the government before framing charges by the court. Campaigners for good governance and transparency decried the provision, saying it shielded corrupt officials.

The government took steps to address widespread police corruption through continued expansion of its community-policing program and through training.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires candidates for parliament to file statements of personal wealth with the Election Commission. The law does not require income and asset disclosure by officials.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with some government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative and responsive to their views.

Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship. Observers commented on the government’s strategy to reduce the effectiveness and inhibit operations 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 public criticism of government policies.

The government continued to restrict the funding and operations of the human rights organization Odhikar. Odhikar continued to report harassment by government officials and security forces, including disruption of their planned events, and planned to close operations due to funding constraints at the end of the year.

On November 14, a local magistrate mobile court ordered human rights organization Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) to leave its main Dhaka office in two months. The magistrate also fined the organization 200,000 BDT ($2,400) for violating a law that prohibits commercial activities from operating in a residential space. ASK Executive Director Sheepa Hafiza called the order “illegal” and told reporters ASK would move the matter to the judicial court to refute allegations the organization committed an offense. Hafiza further said the government’s move “shrank the activities of rights bodies.”

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 peoples, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced both formal and informal governmental restrictions. 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.

Numerous NGOs entered the country in response to the August 2017 Rohingya influx. In August the NGO Affairs Bureau imposed restrictions and suspensions on a number of NGOs in Cox’s Bazar, following an August 25 peaceful rally commemorating the two-year mark of the 2017 Rohingya crisis (see section 2.b.). The government did not publicly disclose all the names of those NGOs.

The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act restricts foreign funding of NGOs and includes punitive provisions for NGOs that make “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution of the country, its founding history, or constitutional bodies (that is, government institutions and leaders).

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not respond to a UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances request to visit the country. The Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh reported 15 other pending requests for UN special rapporteurs to visit the country, including the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has seven members, including five honorary positions. Nasima Begum, former senior secretary in the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, was appointed NHRC chairman in September. This appointment prompted quick criticisms from civil society, who questioned the government’s selection process, and larger discussions on the commission’s effectiveness and independence as all members were government bureaucrats. The NHRC’s primary activities are to investigate human rights violations, address discrimination in law, educate the public about human rights, and advise the government on key human rights issues.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

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.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

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.

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