Bangladesh among worst countries for workers: ITUC index

PHOTO: The Daily Star/Asia News Network

Bangladesh is among the top 10 worst countries in the world for workers as they are exposed to autocratic regimes and unfair labour practices due to inaccessibility to rights, said the International Trade Union Confederation.

The Brussels-based organisation is the world's largest trade union federation representing 181 million workers through its 340 affiliated organisations within 163 countries and territories.

Bangladesh got a rating of 5 in the ITUC Global Rights Index 2017, meaning there is no guarantee of rights for workers in the country.

The other countries that were rated the same as Bangladesh are: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, the Philippines, Colombia, Kazakhstan, South Korea and Turkey.

The ITUC's report, which put the spotlight on the Ashulia labour unrest of last year, comes on the heels of the International Labour Organisation's observations last week that more needs to be done improve workplace safety and labour rights in Bangladesh.

The United Nations organisation gave a deadline of November before it takes any harsh action against Bangladesh.

Trade unionists in Bangladesh have long suffered at the hands of the state, especially its 'notorious industrial police' and employers, which continued in 2017, said the ITUC report, which was published on June 13.

The state authorities were swift to take reprisals against garment workers who took part in a week-long strike in the Ashulia garment production district in December 2016.

The strike was called in support of the demand for an increase in the minimum wage from $68 (S$95) to $190 per month.

The prime minister issued a directive ordering the strikers back to work, while the labour minister warned that stern action would be taken against the instigators.

At least 35 union leaders and workers' rights advocates were detained in the weeks following the strike in December last year and criminal complaints were filed against more than 1,000 workers, the report said.

Most were members of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers' Federation, the Shadin Bangla Garments Workers Federation and the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation.

In retaliation for the strikes, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association suspended production at 59 factories.

Two factories affected by the strikes, Windy Apparels and Fountain Garments, have filed criminal complaints against 239 workers, while Ha-Meem Group was reported to be filing complaints against as many as 1,000 workers, the report said.

By early January 2017, more than 1,600 workers had been suspended.

Many garment workers were too scared to go back to work and some even returned to their villages to escape police persecution. Most local trade union offices in Ashulia were shut down or had been vandalised, the ITUC said.

At a more subtle level of anti-union discrimination, systematic obstacles remain to the registration of trade unions in Bangladesh, especially in the garment sector.

A high-level tripartite ILO mission to the country in mid-April 2016 expressed concern about the rate of trade union registration, the report said.

Only about 10 per cent of Bangladesh's more than 4,500 garment factories have registered unions, as the labour law requires an unreasonably high 30 per cent of workers to agree to form a union and mandates excessive registration procedures.

Besides, the government has vaguely defined powers to cancel a union's registration.

"Factory managers threaten and attack unions and their members with impunity."

For instance, Habib Fashions tried to block the formation of a union and then shut it down.

The Sommolito Garment Sramik Federation applied to register a union at the factory with the Joint Director of Labour on 30 June 2016.

They were seeking to improve working conditions, such as the unacceptably long hours.

Workers were forced to work from 6am to 10pm during Ramadan in June, for example, to fulfil orders on time.

The JDL wrote to SGSF raising certain objections concerning its application, which the union then began to address.

While it was working on this, the factory management met SGSF leaders on 19 July 2016 and asked them to withdraw the application for union registration.

When SGSF refused, the factory management began shifting machinery on the night of July 27, 2016 and declared a temporary closure to take effect as of August 2016, claiming it did not have any orders to fulfil.

The Dhaka-based factory was a subcontractor to many factories producing for international brands and still had plenty of orders on its books.

The garment factory owners do not agree with the ITUC's findings, said Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters' Association.

"Workplace safety and labour rights have improved a lot in Bangladesh due to efforts by the government and factory owners. The industrial relations between workers and managements have also improved."

On the Ashulia incident, Rahman said some vested quarters instigated the workers against their will, he said.

When the situation took a turn for the worse, the owners shut down the factories to save their units from vandalism.

"Until now we have not received any charter of demand from workers after the Ashulia incident," Rahman added.

Mikail Shipar, secretary to the ministry of labour and employment, could not be reached for comments on the ITUC report.

The number of countries in which workers were killed for their trade union activity rose from 10 to 11 (Italy, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela and Mauritania).

The ITUC report also talked about the bad conditions of migrant workers in Qatar.

It said workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh have been working for days without any rest, to upgrade infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.

In a recent report three workers said they had worked for 148 consecutive days, nearly five months without a rest, while more than three-quarters of the 253 workers interviewed said they paid recruitment fees to agents in their home countries.

Qatar has denied many immigrant workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh the ability to return home, despite a new law that was approved in December 2016, the report said.

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