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. Many journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
Freedom of Speech: 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 latitude to interpret it. 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 which constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The law criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies.
The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrime, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the government widely used the DSA against persons questioning the government’s handling of the pandemic. The government also issued other restrictions on freedom of speech. On April 16, the Department of Nursing and Midwifery banned nurses from speaking to the press after the media reported the health sector’s lack of preparation in managing COVID-19. On April 23, Health Minister Zahid Maleque banned all health officials from speaking with the media.
On October 13, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release restricting “false, fabricated, misleading and provocative statements” regarding the government, public representatives, army officers, police, and law enforcement through social media in the country and abroad. The release said legal action would be taken against individuals who did not comply, in the interest of maintaining stability and internal law and order in the country.
During the week of May 3, press outlets reported at least 19 journalists, activists, and other citizens were charged under the DSA with defamation, spreading rumors, and carrying out antigovernment activities. Media accounts of a police case report involving 11 accused individuals detailed Rapid Action Battalion search of mobile phones of two accused and found “antigovernment” chats with other accused individuals. According to the police, these “antigovernment” chats sufficed as evidence to charge and detain the individuals under the DSA.
Freedom of 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 were pressured by the government.
The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge to the viewer. 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 and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a government and ruling party tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced the threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record.
On April 10, during the government instituted lockdown to control COVID-19 transmission, a police constable from Hazaribagh police station beat Nasir Uddin Rocky, a journalist with Daily Jugantar, and his brother Saifuddin Quraish, a health worker, even though both men had cards around their necks identifying themselves as essential workers. Officials relieved the constable of his duties, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reported the police had initiated an investigation into the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media 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. In September a group of media experts, NGOs, and journalists said the downward trend of the rule of law and freedom for the media went hand in hand with government media censorship, which, in civil society’s view, translated to the government’s distrust of society.
Privately owned newspapers usually were free to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and of editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists 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.
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. As of July, 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the Digital Security Act with more than 80 individuals arrested. Law referring to defamation of individuals and organizations was used to prosecute opposition figures and members of civil society.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.
During June and July, the RSF reported a number of societal attacks against journalists, many in connection with anger over published reports with allegations of corruption and nepotism in the government’s COVID assistance response. According to the RSF, 10 men beat journalist Shariful Alam Chowdhury with steel bars, machetes, and hammers. During the beating, Chowdhury’s arms and legs were broken. Chowdhury’s family told the RSF they believed local village council authorities called for this attack.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government banned virtual private networks and voice over internet protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.
In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.
During the year the government restricted 3G and 4G mobile internet service in Rohingya refugee camps for “security reasons,” according to government officials, and ordered mobile service providers to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya refugees.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged regulating telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs.
Al-Jazeera remained blocked in the country; the government blocked it in March 2019, hours after it published an article detailing the alleged involvement of a senior security and defense figure in the disappearance of three men as part of a business dispute involving his wife. In August, Amar Desh, a popular news outlet with views favoring the opposition party, started publishing online news through a United Kingdom “.uk” domain. The government had shut down Amar Desh in 2016. Less than 24 hours after Amar Desh began operating, the government blocked the website.
In early April the BRTC blocked Radio Free Asia affiliate BenarNews after the outlet covered a leaked UN memo warning two million Bangladeshis could die from COVID-19 absent appropriate government measures. While access was partially restored in May, observers note the BenarNews website was occasionally blocked up to year’s end.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.
In June, Begum Rokeya University authorities filed a complaint under the Digital Security Act against Professor Sirajum Munira for a Facebook post the university authorities claimed mocked the late Mohammad Nasim, a former senior government official in the health ministry. Although Munira apologized and deleted the post, police used a screenshot of the deleted post as evidence to arrest her. Several days later a private attorney filed a police complaint under the Digital Security Act against Rajshahi University professor Kazi Zahidur Rahman for making “defamatory comments” regarding Nasim in two Facebook posts. Rahman was later arrested in connection with this complaint. Media reported both Begum Rokeya University and Rajshahi University suspended these professors following their arrests.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations.
According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.
The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5, and 7.a.).
The law places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any derogatory comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5).
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, 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 and also restricted the movement of Rohingya refugees. While foreign travel is allowed, some senior civil society and international NGO representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when applying for a visa, entering, or departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.
The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces. See section 6, indigenous persons.
The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT Commission recently estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the taskforce on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this treaty.
Prior to the 2017 Rohingya arrivals, 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 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 and other atrocities in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, more than 860,000 registered Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. The government did not recognize the 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 the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country.
A National Task Force under 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 army and border guards. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commission provided coordination. While telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar were restored in August, the one-year restriction 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, and sharing critical information related to the coronavirus.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. NGOs reported human trafficking was common in the camps with few cases prosecuted in the country’s judicial system. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.
International organizations reported 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 CiCs were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating 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.
In May the Bangladesh navy rescued Rohingya boat refugees stranded in the open waters and later brought 306 of these refugees to Bhasan Char, a Bangladeshi, remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Rohingya located at Bhasan Char had no means to travel to camps in Cox’s Bazar, where many claimed to have family members. Bhasan Char residents had no means to exit the island, leading some human rights groups to characterize the Rohingya stay on the island as “detention.” Despite pleas from international human rights groups to move the refugees to the mainland, the government rejected the request and said the refugees lived better lives on the island than within the cramped living conditions in Cox’s Bazar.
Authorities have not yet agreed on terms of reference with the UN for an independent protection mission or terms of reference for a technical assessment of Bhasan Char. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups stated the Rohingya refugees relocated to the island as of September lacked medical access and proper sanitation, including supplies for safe menstrual hygiene. Those on the island state they are denied freedom of movement and have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education. On September 21, several Rohingya refugees began a hunger strike to protest their continued stay on the island. International media, including the Guardian, reported security forces on the island have sexually assaulted Rohingya refugees. Human Rights Watch also reported navy personnel beat them with rubber sticks and tree branches when they protested their stay on the island. Authorities have not investigated these reports.
International media, including The Guardian, reported authorities relocated an additional 1,642 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char in early December, and an additional 1,800 in late December. Future relocations are planned, and questions regarding the voluntariness of those refugees relocating remain.
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. Prior to 2017, 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 more than 740,000 additional Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese addresses. At the end of 2019, the government completed the second phase of its joint registration exercise 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 stance 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.
Freedom of Movement: There were 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 official 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 2019 the government began erecting watchtowers and fencing in the camps; the government stated the objective was to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling, while humanitarian agencies expressed concerns that fencing would hinder delivery of services to refugees and exacerbate tensions between refugees and host communities.
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 activities for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers on 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 which 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 hindering 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 certify students have attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. In January the government endorsed an education sector pilot program to provide education using the Burmese national curriculum to 10,000 Rohingya refugee children by the end of the year. Implementation has been delayed due to COVID-19-related closures of refugee learning centers.
Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya 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 on all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.
The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.
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 April the media reported numerous accounts of local authorities embezzling government food assistance during the pandemic and the related government-imposed lockdown. In one instance, law enforcement authorities arrested a union committee chairman after finding 299 sacks of rice in his private warehouse. In response to these reports, the prime minister announced on April 20 her plan to install 64 midlevel officials from the central government to monitor and report on relief operations.
In June, Kuwaiti authorities arrested Bangladeshi member of parliament Mohammad “Shahid” Islam, purportedly for trafficking Bangladeshi workers to Kuwait through an illicit visa trading scheme as well as money laundering. Shahid was chief executive officer of a contracting company in Kuwait with an estimated 26,000 workers of Bangladeshi, Indian, and Nepali nationalities. Media reported Shahid bribed Kuwaiti officials with cars to secure contracts for his company in Kuwait.
In September, Transparency International said only a few isolated cases of government corruption were publicly disclosed because the government placed greater effort on preventing stories of corruption from leaking than on taking action against corruption itself.
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 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 Registrar of Trade Unions regularly abused its discretion and denies applications for no reason, for reasons not recognized in law or regulation, or by fabricating shortcomings in the application. One union representative explained she had completed all paperwork to form a union and had support from 30 percent of workers, but the union registration was rejected by the Directorate of Labor because the factory claimed it had hundreds of additional employees. Organizers’ names were shared with the factory owner and all were fired.
The labor law definition of workers excludes managerial, supervisory, and administrative staff. Firefighting staff, security guards, and employers’ confidential assistants are not entitled to join a union. Civil service and security force employees are prohibited from forming unions.
The law continued to ban trade unions and severely restricted the right to organize and bargain collectively for the nearly 500,000 workers in export processing zones (EPZs). Worker welfare associations (WWAs), dominated by the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), continue to replace the function of independent, democratically elected unions in EPZs. The law strictly limits the right to strike, giving BEPZA’s chairperson discretion to ban any strike viewed as prejudicial to the public interest. The law provides for EPZ labor tribunals, appellate tribunals, and conciliators, but those institutions were not established. Instead, eight labor courts and one appellate labor court heard EPZ cases. WWAs in EPZs are prohibited from establishing any connection to outside political parties, unions, federations, or NGOs. With the exception of limitations on the right of association and worker protections in the EPZs, the labor law prohibits antiunion discrimination. A labor court may order the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities, but reinstatement was rarely awarded.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment may deregister unions for other reasons with the approval of a labor court. The law affords unions the right of appeal in the cases of dissolution or denial of registration. Unfair labor practices, including antiunion discrimination, were expressly prohibited, but 2018 amendments to labor law halved penalties for both employers and workers. Workers were often charged with unfair labor practices; employers rarely were. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. The law provides for the right to conduct legal strikes but with many limitations. For example the government may prohibit a strike deemed to pose a “serious hardship to the community” and may terminate any strike lasting more than 30 days. The law additionally prohibits strikes for the first three years of commercial production if the factory was built with foreign investment or owned by a foreign investor.
The law establishes mechanisms for conciliation, arbitration, and dispute resolution by a labor court. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) has the authority to mediate wage-related disputes, but its decisions are not binding. The government reported nine complaints were filed for unfair labor practices; three were resolved according to the law and standard operating procedures, six remained open, and no employers were penalized. Trade union federations reported they have stopped filing unfair labor cases due to the enormous backlog of existing cases in labor courts.
The law establishes that workers in a collective-bargaining union have the right to strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement. Few strikes followed the cumbersome legal requirements, however, and strikes or walkouts often occurred spontaneously. Work stoppages, strikes, and workplace actions were prevalent during the year in several sectors, and generally concerned past-due wages, improper or illegal shutdowns, layoffs, terminations and discrimination. In one example, the manager of Ettade Jeans Ltd. filed a criminal case against 65 to 75 workers who, protesting an announced six-month delay to their holiday bonus, vandalized the factory, severely injured and robbed a man in management, and threatened other workers.
According to Solidarity Center, union registration applications and approvals have declined significantly since 2013, and workers face significant challenges registering unions. Despite the adoption of standard operating procedures for union registration in 2017, Solidarity Center reported the process routinely takes longer than the 60-day maximum time, and nearly half of all union applications are arbitrarily denied. Through August, Solidarity Center’s partners assisted nine unions with their registration, and five were approved. The government reported receiving 231 total valid applications in 2020 and approving 145, with 68 still to be reviewed in September.
Workers in the ready-made garment sector reported particular resistance when seeking to establish unions and engage in collective bargaining. In a 2018 survey, the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a local think tank, collected data from 3,856 ready-made garment factories employing 3.6 million workers, and found 97.5 percent of them had no union. During the year the Ministry of Labor and Employment reported the ready-made garment sector had 909 active trade unions and 1,609 participation committees. Labor leaders asserted while there are perhaps 80 to 90 active unions, only 30 to 40 actually negotiate because intimidation, corruption, and violence continue to constrain union organizing. The ministry reported the shrimp sector had 16 unions and the leather and tannery sector had 13. The tea sector had one union–the largest in the country–representing 95,000 to 100,000 workers.
Labor rights groups reported workers routinely faced retaliation and violence for asserting their rights under the law, including organizing unions, raising concerns, or even attending union information sessions. For example in June, management at Romana Fashion of East West Industrial Park fired 122 workers including seven union leaders when they pointed out union members were being transferred to different floors and divisions. After thousands protested the prime minister’s decision to close 26 state-owned jute mills and force 50,000 into early retirement, two labor leaders were taken from their homes on July 5 by unidentified, armed men, then appeared in police custody 30 hours later under charges stemming from a 2019 protest. When workers protested the closure of Viyellatex Limited, police beat and filed false cases against them, and factory management blacklisted 95 workers for their alleged misconduct and posted a list of their names on the factory wall. Individuals harassed and blocked Solidarity Center staff from approaching the factory, threatening sexual violence against female staff who tried to meet with workers.
Additionally, workers in unions have been subjected to police violence, mass dismissals, and arrests of union leaders for asserting their rights to protest. Police intimidated unions in the ready-made garment industry by frequently visiting their meetings and offices, photographing or recording meetings, and monitoring NGOs supporting trade unions. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) noted major discrepancies in labor legislation that do not align with the standards of the International Labor Organization and emphasized concerns regarding police crackdowns on workers protesting wages. ITUC also called for more measures to restrain interference in union elections.
According to labor law, every factory with more than 50 employees is required to have a participation committee (PC). The law states there shall not be any participation committee if any registered trade union exists in a factory. Employers often selected or appointed workers for the PC instead of permitting worker elections to determine those positions. Employers also failed to comply with laws and regulations to ensure the effectiveness and independence of PCs.
Workers from several factories also reported that since August 2018, BGMEA and factory owners have allegedly used a database of ready-made garment workers to blacklist those who brought demands to management or tried to form unions. Although created after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in order to have a record of workers (and potential victims of future disasters), the database now serves to track known union organizers or anyone who has brought a complaint to management to prevent these staff from finding employment at any other factory. Labor organizations also cited examples of factory owners willing to pay up to $12,000 to the Department of Labor to dismiss a union registration application, or to share the names of organizers.
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or bonded labor offenses were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. 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.
Over the past year, law enforcement conducted fewer investigations and denied credible reports of official complicity in hundreds of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation cases. The government does not provide sufficient victim protective services, nor does it consistently follow victim identification procedures. There are no government-owned shelters for adult male 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.).
Traffickers exploited workers in forced labor through debt-based coercion and bonded labor in the shrimp and fish processing industries, aluminum and garment factories, brick kilns, dry fish production, and shipbreaking. NGOs reported officials permit traffickers to recruit and operate at India-Bangladesh border crossings and maritime embarkation points.
The over 860,000 undocumented Rohingya men, women, and children in refugee camps, who do not have access to formal schooling or work, are vulnerable to forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation, particularly by local criminal networks. International organizations report that officials take bribes from traffickers to access refugee camps.
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law regulates child employment, and the regulations depend on the type of work and the child’s age. The law establishes the minimum age for work as 14, and the minimum age for hazardous work as 18, with no exceptions. 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 hours per week in other types of workplaces. By law every child must attend school through eighth grade.
The government continued to fund and participate in programs to eliminate or prevent child labor, including building schools and a $35 million government-funded three-year project that began in 2018 and removed approximately 90,000 children from hazardous jobs. In 2019 the program reintegrated 1,254 children into schools and provided rehabilitation for 3,501 children as well as livelihood support for their parents.
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. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. DIFE enforces child labor laws in 42 sectors, and in the 2019-20 fiscal year it targeted four hazardous sectors in which to eliminate child labor completely: engineering, bakery, plastic, and hotels. Labor inspectors were not authorized to assess penalties–they have the power only to send legal notices and file cases in court. Even when courts imposed fines, however, they were too low to deter child labor violations.
Agriculture and other informal sectors that had no government oversight employed large numbers of children. The government found children working eight to 10 hours per day in restaurants, engineering workshops, local transportation, and domestic work. The government also reported underage children are found in almost all sectors except the export-oriented ready-made garment (RMG) and shrimp sectors.
Children engaged in the worst forms of child labor in the production of bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes), footwear, furniture and steel, glass, matches, poultry, salt, shrimp, soap, textiles, and jute, 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 bound for the local market, where the Bangladesh Labor Foundation reported 58 percent of workers are under 18, and 18 percent are under the age of 15.
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. In a survey conducted by an international organization, more than 400,000 children were found engaged in domestic work. Children engaged in forced labor in the leather industry and in criminal activities, such as begging and the production and transport of drugs. In begging rings, traffickers abused children to increase earnings.
Rohingya children residing in refugee camps were vulnerable to forced labor. Rohingya girls were trafficked from the camps to Dhaka or foreign 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 as shop hands, domestic workers, fishermen, and rickshaw pullers.
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 law does not describe a penalty for discrimination. The government did not effectively enforce the law and the penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes.
The garment sector traditionally offered greater employment opportunities for women. Women represented the majority of garment-sector workers this year, 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 Oxford University and Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education Economics Institute 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. Solidarity Center partners reported there were no functioning antiharassment committees in garment factories, but the Garment Exporters’ Association announced it had visited more than 1,100 factories to confirm the committees had been established.
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).
The laws prohibiting adolescents from participating in dangerous work specify that women are equal to adolescents and are, therefore, prohibited from working with hazardous machinery, cleaning machinery in motion, working between moving parts, or working underground or underwater.
The National Minimum Wage Board established minimum monthly wages on a sector-by-sector basis. The minimum wage was not indexed to inflation, but the board occasionally made cost-of-living adjustments to wages in some sectors. None of the set minimum wages provided a sufficient standard of living for urban dwellers, but many were above the poverty level. Failure to pay the specified minimum wage is punishable by a jail term up to one year, a fine, or both, and the employer should have to pay owed wages.
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. The law states that every worker should be allowed at least 11 festival holidays with full wages in a year, fixed by the employer in consultation with the collective bargaining agent (CBA), if any. Factory workers are supposed to receive one day off every week. Shop workers receive one and one-half days off per week. The labor law did not specify a penalty for forced overtime or failing to pay overtime wages.
The law establishes occupational health and safety standards, and amendments to the law created mandatory worker safety committees. The labor law specified sanctions when failure to comply caused harm; for loss of life, violators are subject to a four-year jail term, a fine, or both; for serious injury, a two-year jail term, a fine, or both; and for injury or danger violators face a six-month jail term, a fine, or both. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health laws were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence.
Labor law implementing rules outline the process for forming occupational safety and health committees in factories, and the government reported approximately 2,175 safety committees had been 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, DIFE arranges an election among the workers for their representatives.
DIFE’s resources were inadequate to inspect and remediate problems effectively. Labor inspectors only have the authority to make unannounced inspections in non-EPZ factories. They do not have the authority to initiate sanctions; they may notify establishments of violations in writing and lodge complaints in labor courts. DIFE regularly filed cases in the labor courts against employers for administrative violations of the law, such as not maintaining documents. MOLE reported DIFE has filed cases against some factories for failure to pay minimum wages and overtime during the year, but labor organizations had not seen any cases. There were also criticisms regarding DIFE’s complaint mechanism. In the current system, a worker must 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.
Although increased focus on the garment industry improved safety compliance in some garment factories, resources, inspections, and remediation were generally not adequate across sectors. 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 and a labor rights NGO found 95 percent of factories did not comply with overtime limits. Employers often required workers, including pregnant women, to labor 12 hours a day or more to meet quotas and export deadlines, but they did not always properly compensate workers for their time. According to 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.
After international garment brands cancelled orders due to a decrease in demand following COVID-19, the government and employers’ associations asked employers not to terminate workers and to ensure continuous payment of salaries, allowances, and other dues of all industries, factories, and tea estate workers. Local news media and labor organizations, however, reported dozens of factories terminated or laid off tens of thousands of workers without paying severance or following the proper procedures for notifying the government as requested. After a one-month lockdown, factories slowly reopened with widely varying procedures and hygiene facilities to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19.
In April hundreds of garment workers in 11 factories in Savar protested unpaid wages from the previous month. Some officials of the small factories went into hiding, while others dispersed protestors by assuring them that wages would be paid shortly.
In the first half of the year the Ministry of Labor and Employment reported 16 major industrial accidents in which 11 persons were seriously injured and 18 were killed. The incidents took place in rice and steel mills, the ship breaking sector, and stone quarries. The two Western brand-led initiatives that formed to address widespread structural, fire, and electrical safety issues in the garment sector after the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse both ceased their operations in the country during the year. The High Court had ordered Nirapon (the organization continuing the work of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and representing most North American clothing brands) to suspend its audit and training activities after a factory reopened an old case against the Alliance to sue Nirapon. Also under a court-ordered memorandum of understanding, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“Accord,” consisting mostly of European brands), handed over its operations, staff, and relationships with garment sector factories producing for Accord brands to the newly-established Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council, whose board includes representation by industry, brands, and trade unions.
Revisions to the building code were published that failed to meet basic international fire safety standards and government oversight of building safety outside of the garment export sector remained limited. Although the brand-led Accord and Alliance improved structural, fire, and electrical safety conditions in 2,300 RMG factories manufacturing for Western brands, safety auditors reported fire detection and suppression systems in these factories often did not work following installation because they were not maintained properly. Several hundred additional RMG factories producing for domestic sale or for export to foreign markets fell under the government’s National Initiative, which had not made much progress on safety remediation since its establishment in 2017. DIFE is developing an Industrial Safety Unit to launch by December 2021 to oversee the National Initiative factories and, eventually, the safety of industries.
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 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.