Transparency of the Regulatory System
Since 1989, the government has gradually moved to decrease regulatory obstruction of private business. The chambers of commerce have called for a greater voice for the private sector in government decisions and for privatization, but at the same time, many support protectionism and subsidies for their own industries. The result is that policy and regulations in Bangladesh are often not clear, consistent, or publicized. Registration and regulatory processes are alleged to be frequently used as rent-seeking opportunities. The major rule-making and regulatory authority exist in the national level – under each Ministry with many final decisions being made at the top-most levels, including the Prime Minister’s office (PMO). The PMO is actively engaged in policies, as well as foreign investment in government-controlled projects.
The Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) – a merger of the Board of Investment (BOI) and the Privatization Commission (PC) – was formed in accordance with the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority Bill 2016 passed by Parliament on July 25, 2016. The bill established BIDA as the lead private investment promotion and facilitation agency in Bangladesh. The move came amid complaints about redundancies in the BOI’s and the PC’s overlapping mandates and concerns that the PC had not made sufficient progress. BIDA hopes to become a “one-stop shop” for investors and a “true” investment promotion authority rather than simply follow the referral service-orientation of BOI. Currently, BIDA is not yet a one-stop shop and companies must still seek approvals from relevant line ministries.
Bangladesh has achieved incremental progress in using information technology to improve the transparency and efficiency of some government services and to develop independent agencies to regulate the energy and telecommunication sectors. Some investors cited government laws, regulations, and implementation as impediments to investment. The government has historically limited opportunities for the private sector to comment on proposed regulations. In 2009, Bangladesh adopted the Right to Information Act that provides for multilevel stakeholders consultation through workshops or media outreach. Although the consultation process exists, it is still weak and subject to further improvement.
Ministries do not generally publish and release draft proposals to the public. However, several agencies, including the Bangladesh Bank, BIDA, the Ministry of Commerce, and the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission have occasionally posted draft legislation and regulations online and solicited feedback from the business community. In some instances, parliamentary committees have also reached out to relevant stakeholders for input on draft legislation. The media continues to be the main information source for the public on many draft proposals. There is also no legal obligation to publish proposed regulations, consider alternatives to proposed regulation, or solicit comments from the general public.
Regulatory agencies generally do not solicit comments on proposed regulations from the general public; however, when a consultation occurs, comments may be received through public media consultation, feedback on websites (e.g., in the past, the Bangladesh Bank received comments on monetary policy), Focused Group Discussions, or workshops with relevant stakeholders. There is no government body tasked with soliciting and receiving comments, but the Bangladesh Government Press of the Ministry of Information is entrusted with the authority of disseminating government information to the public. The law does not require regulatory agencies to report on the results of consultations, and in practice, regulators do not generally report the results. Widespread use of social media in Bangladesh has created an additional platform for public input into developing regulations, and government officials appear to be sensitive to this form of messaging.
The Bangladesh Government Press ( http://www.dpp.gov.bd/bgpress/ ), the government printing office, publishes the weekly “Bangladesh Gazette” every Thursday. The gazette provides official notice of government actions, including the issuance of government rules and regulations and the transfer and promotion of government employees. Laws can also be accessed at http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/ .
Bangladesh passed the Financial Reporting Act of 2015 that created the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) and aims to establish transparency and accountability in the accounting and auditing of financial institutions. However, the FRC is not fully operational and accounting practices and quality varies widely in Bangladesh. Internationally known and recognized firms have begun establishing local offices in Bangladesh and the presence of these firms is positively influencing the accounting norms in the country. Some firms are capable of providing financial reports audited to international standards while others maintain unreliable (or multiple) sets of accounting reports. Regulatory agencies also do not conduct impact assessment of proposed regulations; hence, regulations are often not reviewed on the basis of data-driven assessments. National budget documents are not prepared according to internationally accepted standards.
International Regulatory Considerations
BIMSTEC aims to integrate regional regulatory systems between Bangladesh, India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan. However, efforts to advance regional cooperation measures have stalled in recent years and regulatory systems remain uncoordinated.
Local law is based on English common law system, but most fall short of international standards. The country’s regulatory system remains weak, where many of the laws and regulations are not enforced and standards are not maintained.
Bangladesh has been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since January 1995. WTO requires all signatories to the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) to establish a National Inquiry Point and Notification Authority to gather and efficiently distribute trade-related regulatory, standards, and conformity assessment information to the WTO Member community. Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute (BSTI) is the National Enquiry Point. There is an internal committee on WTO affairs in BSTI and it participates in the notification activities to WTO through the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Industries.
Focal Points and Methods of Contact are:
Focal Points for WTO:
- Mr. Taher Jamil, Deputy Director, BSTI, Dhaka, cell: +8801723704505;
- Mr. Shajjatul Bari, Deputy Director, Standards Wing, BSTI, Dhaka; Office tel: +880-2-8870285;
- Director General, WTO Cell, Ministry of Commerce; Office Tel: +880-2-8870285.
Focal Points for SPS, TBT and TRIPS:
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Bangladesh is a common law based jurisdiction. Many of the basic laws of Bangladesh, such as the penal code, civil and criminal procedural codes, contract law, and company law, are influenced by English common laws. However, family laws, such as laws relating to marriage, dissolution of marriage, and inheritance, are based on religious scripts, and therefore differ between religious communities. The Bangladeshi legal system is based on a written constitution and the laws often take statutory forms that are enacted by the legislature and interpreted by the higher courts. Ordinarily, executive authorities and statutory corporations cannot make any law, but can make by-laws to the extent authorized by the legislature. Such subordinate legislation is known as rules or regulations and is also enforceable by the court. Yet, being a common law system, the statutes are short, and set out basic rights and responsibilities, but are elaborated by the courts in their application and interpretation of those. The Judiciary of Bangladesh acts through (1) The Superior Judiciary having appellate, revision, and original jurisdiction, and (2) Sub-Ordinate Judiciary having original jurisdiction.
Since 1971, Bangladesh’s legal system has been updated in the areas of company, banking, bankruptcy, and money loan court laws, and other commercial laws. An important impediment to investment in Bangladesh is a weak and slow legal system in which the enforceability of contracts is uncertain. The judicial system does not provide for interest to be charged in tort judgments, which means delays in proceedings carry no penalties. Bangladesh does not have a separate court or division of a court dedicated solely to hearing commercial cases. The Joint District Judge court (a civil court) is responsible for enforcing contracts.
Some notable commercial laws include:
- The Contract Act, 1872 (Act No. IX of 1930);
- The Sale of Goods Act, 1930 (Act No. III of 1930);
- The Partnership Act, 1932 (Act No. IX of 1932);
- The Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 (Act No. XXVI of 1881);
- The Bankruptcy Act, 1997 (Act No. X of 1997);
- The Arbitration Act, 2001 (Act No. I of 2001).
The judicial system of Bangladesh has never been completely independent from the interference of the executive branch of the government. In a significant milestone, the government in 2007 separated the country’s judiciary from the executive, but the executive retains strong influence over the judiciary through control of judicial appointments. Other pillars of the justice system, including the police, courts, and legal profession are also closely aligned with the executive branch. In lower courts, corruption is widely perceived as a serious problem. Regulations or enforcement actions are appealable under the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Bangladesh scored 2.38 in the World Bank’s 2016 Judicial Independence Index out of a 1-7 band score with 7 being the best.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
Major laws affecting foreign investment include: the Foreign Private Investment (Promotion and Protection) Act of 1980, the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority Act of 1980, the Companies Act of 1994, the Telecommunications Act of 2001, the Industrial Policy Act of 2005, the Industrial Policy Act of 2010, and the Bangladesh Economic Zones Act 2010. The Industrial Policy Act of 2016 was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Industrial Purchase on February 24, 2016 and replaces the Industrial Policy of 2010.
The Industrial Policy Act of 2016 offers incentives for “green,” (environmental) high-tech, or “transformative” industries. Foreign investors who invest USD 1 million or transfer USD 2 million to a recognized financial institution can apply for Bangladeshi citizenship. The Government of Bangladesh will provide financial and policy support for high-priority industries (those that create large-scale employment and earn substantial export revenue) and creative (architecture, arts and antiques, fashion design, film and video, interactive laser software, software, and computer and media programming) industries. Specific importance will be given to agriculture and food processing, ready-made garments (RMG), information and communication technology (ICT) and software, pharmaceuticals, leather and leather products, and jute and jute goods.
In 2017, BIDA has submitted proposed legislation for a One-Stop Service Act (OSS), which has since been approved by the Parliament, to attract further foreign direct investment to Bangladesh. In addition, Petrobangla, the state-owned oil and gas company, has modified its production sharing agreement contract for offshore gas exploration to include an option to export gas.
BIDA has a “one-stop” website that provides relevant laws, rules, procedure, and reporting requirements for investors at: http://www.bida.gov.bd/ .
Aside from information on relevant business laws and licenses, the website includes information on Bangladesh’s investment climate, opportunities for business, potential sectors, and how to do business in Bangladesh. The website also has an eService Portal for Investors, which provides services like visa recommendations for foreign investors, approval/extension of work permit for expatriates, approval of foreign borrowing, and approval/renewal of branch/liaison and representative office. However, the effectiveness of these online services is questionable.
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
The GOB formed an independent agency in 2011 called the “Bangladesh Competition Commission (BCC)” under the Ministry of Commerce. The Bangladesh Parliament then passed the Competition Act in June 2012. However, the BCC has experienced operational delays and it has not received sufficient resources to fully operate. Currently, the WTO Cell of the Ministry of Commerce handles most competition-related issues.
In January 2016, the two parent companies of Malaysia-based Robi and India-based Airtel signed a formal deal to merge their operations in Bangladesh, completing the country’s first telecommunications merger. The deal, valued at USD 12.5 million, is to date Bangladesh’s largest corporate merger. The merger raised anti-competition concerns but it was completed in November 2016 after the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave final approvals.
Expropriation and Compensation
Since the Foreign Investment Act of 1980 banned nationalization or expropriation without adequate compensation, the GOB has not nationalized or expropriated property from foreign investors. In the years immediately following independence in 1971, widespread nationalization resulted in government ownership of more than 90 percent of fixed assets in the modern manufacturing sector, including the textile, jute and sugar industries and all banking and insurance interests, except those in foreign (but non-Pakistani) hands. The government has since taken steps to privatize many of these industries during the last 20 years and the private sector has developed into a main driver of the country’s sustained economic growth.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Bangladesh is a signatory to the International Convention for the Settlement of Disputes (ICSID) and it acceded in May 1992 to the United Nations Convention for the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. Alternative dispute resolutions are possible under the Bangladesh Arbitration Act of 2001. The current legislation allows for enforcement of arbitral awards.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Bangladeshi law allows contracts to refer investor-state dispute settlement to third country fora for resolution. The U.S.-Bangladesh Bilateral Investment Treaty also stipulates that parties may, upon the initiative of either of them and as a part of their consultation and negotiation, agree to rely upon non-binding, third-party procedures, such as the fact-finding facility available under the Rules of the Additional Facility of the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes. If the dispute cannot be resolved through consultation and negotiation, then the dispute shall be submitted for settlement in accordance with the applicable dispute-settlement procedures upon which they have previously agreed. Bangladesh is also a party to the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Agreement for the Establishment of an Arbitration Council, signed November 2005, which aims to establish a permanent center for alternative dispute resolution in one of the SAARC member countries.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Bangladeshi law allows contracts to refer dispute settlement to third country forums for resolution. The Bangladesh Arbitration Act of 2001 and amendments in 2004 reformed alternative dispute resolution in Bangladesh. The Act consolidated the law relating to both domestic and international commercial arbitration. It thus created a single and unified legal regime for arbitration in Bangladesh. Although the new Act is principally based on the UNCITRAL Model Law, it is a patchwork quilt as some unique provisions are derived from the Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996 and some from the English Arbitration Act 1996.
In practice, enforcement of arbitration results is applied unevenly and the GOB has challenged ICSID rulings, especially those that involve rulings against the GOB. The timeframe for dispute resolution is unpredictable and has no set limit. It can be done as quickly as a few months, but often takes years depending on the type of dispute. Anecdotal information indicates average resolution time can be as high as 16 years. Local courts may be biased against foreign investors in resolving disputes.
Bangladesh is a signatory of the New York Convention and recognizes the enforcement of international arbitration awards. Domestic arbitration is under the authority of the district judge court bench and foreign arbitration is under the authority of the relevant high court bench.
The ability of the Bangladeshi judicial system to enforce its own awards is weak. Senior members of the government have been effective in using their offices to resolve investment disputes on several occasions, but the GOB’s ability to resolve investment disputes at a lower level is mixed. The GOB does not publish the numbers of investment disputes involving U.S. or foreign investors. Anecdotal evidence indicates investment disputes occur with limited frequency and the involved parties often resolve the disputes privately rather than seek government intervention.
The practice of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in Bangladesh has many challenges, including lack of funds, lack of lawyer cooperation, and lack of good faith. Slow adoption of ADR mechanisms and sluggish judicial processes impede the enforcement of contracts and the resolution of business disputes in Bangladesh.
As in many countries, Bangladesh has adopted a “conflicts of law” approach to determining whether a judgment from a foreign legal jurisdiction is enforceable in Bangladesh. This single criterion allows Bangladesh courts broad discretion in choosing whether to enforce foreign judgments with significant effects on matrimonial, adoption, corporate, and property disputes. Most enterprises in Bangladesh, and especially state-owned enterprises (SOEs), whose leadership is nominated by the ruling government party, maintain strong ties with the government. Thus, domestic courts strongly tend to favor SOEs and local companies, in investment disputes.
Investors are also increasingly turning to the Bangladesh International Arbitration Center (BIAC) for dispute resolution. BIAC is an independent arbitration center established by prominent local business leaders in April 2011 to improve commercial dispute resolution in Bangladesh to stimulate economic growth. The council committee is headed by the President of International Chamber of Commerce – Bangladesh (ICC,B) and includes the presidents of other prominent chambers such as like Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) and Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI). The center operates under the Bangladesh Arbitration Act of 2001. According to BIAC, fast track cases are resolved in approximately six months while typical cases are resolved in one year. Major Bangladeshi trade and business associations such as the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh (AmCham) can sometimes help to resolve transaction disputes.
Many laws affecting investment in Bangladesh are old and outdated. Bankruptcy laws, which apply mainly to individual insolvency, are sometimes not used in business cases because of webs of falsified assets and uncollectible cross-indebtedness supporting insolvent banks and companies. A Bankruptcy Act was enacted in 1997, but has been ineffective in addressing these issues. An amendment to the Bank Companies Act of 1991 was enacted in 2013. Some bankruptcy cases fall under the Money Loan Court Act, which has more stringent and timely procedures.