Functioning trade unions, decreasing number of child labourers and the introduction of labour courts and foundations are demonstrations of the extraordinary achievements of Bangladesh in ensuring labour rights.
The labour force plays a crucial role in Bangladesh’s development as the economy is labour intensive and still bottom heavy. Workers are considered the human resources and the supply of labour to run the wheel of development. As they are the backbone of the country’s development, the provision of their security and rights is crucial. Essentially, the state is responsible for ensuring the rights of its citizens from where the sources of labour come.
As a country of the global south, Bangladesh’s labour rights are not perfect yet but have a positive trajectory. The country has taken initiatives, formulated legal frameworks, and implemented those in accordance with the global standard and closely works with the International Labor Organization (ILO). The government of Bangladesh has also forged partnerships and enforced cooperation with national and international stakeholders to improve labour rights. Notably, since the incident of Rana Plaza and Tazrin Fashion, Bangladesh has strengthened its initiatives and accelerated implementation procedures to make a sound base on labour rights.
Legal and policy perspective
Legal and policy frameworks are essential components in securing any rights. Bearing this in mind, Bangladesh has formulated dozens of new policies and amended existing ones to ensure the rights of labour to keep up with international standards. These legal frameworks are protection against the brace of labour rights violations and are key to securing workers’ safety and security. Bangladesh has ratified all eight ILO core conventions. Bangladesh passed Labor Act in 2006 and it was amended in 2018 to update with the contemporary world. The act has included all-inclusive issues and rights ranging from labour recruitment, labour-employer relationships, minimum wages, incidental costs, occupational hazards, dispute resolution, and workplace environment. It has also given the right to any worker to freely join trade unions- a democratic right.
Likewise, Bangladesh Labor Rules (BLR) was introduced in 2015 which has been further amended in September 2022. There was a clear delineation of issues like appointment procedures, salary, other financial benefits, and guidelines regarding the provident fund.
Moreover, the amended rules have empowered trade unions and provisions to prevent sexual harassment in workplaces by forming a five-member sexual harassment prevention committee led by a woman, and arrangements of leave for women workers in case of miscarriages.
Bangladesh formulated a Labor Policy in 2012, the Child Labor Elimination Policy in 2010, the Labor Act of 2013, the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy 2015, the Formulation of a hazardous work list for children, the National Occupational Health and Safety Policy 2013, and formulation of Bangladesh workers’ welfare fund. These acts and policies are legal protection of the rights of labourers which ensure a productive, non-discriminatory, non-exploitative and healthy work environment for all active citizens. Notably, the Child Labor Elimination Policy was formed to address the malaise of child labour and to protect children from risky jobs. It has made a target of eliminating all types of child labour by 2025.
Institutional and enforcement mechanisms
Bangladesh has developed institutional frameworks and mechanisms to implement and enforce legal frameworks. Ministry, departments, welfare foundations, funds, courts and unions have been employed to implement the formulated policies. Among them, the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MoLE) is the apex body in this regard, under which there are several departments to facilitate the functions of the ministry. MoLE enforces the labour act, provides information, and gives advice to employers and workers on how to comply with it.
Where the Department of Labor is responsible for ensuring labour rights including registration of trade unions, labour-related dispute resolution and monitoring labour rights situation. The Department of Factory Inspection is responsible for inspecting the labour conditions, and environment of factories.
Notably, the welfare foundation and central fund for labour provide grants and funds to the workers for medical purposes, study of their children and financial assistance to the labourers due to deaths in workplaces. Apart from that, labour courts, formed with judges, and members of trade unions, are responsible for overseeing the legal violation of labour laws.
Collaboration and partnership
For better understanding and successful enforcement of legal procedures, Bangladesh has been engaging in collaboration and partnership with local and global stakeholders. The country has taken policy suggestions, expert opinions and good practices from ILO. Bangladesh has been working with ILO on several projects to improve the capacity of labour inspectors and training for workers.
The adoption of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in collaboration with ILO has made significant outcomes in increasing the number of registration for trade unions, ensuring decent working conditions in factories and developing institutional frameworks of the regulatory bodies. With the funds from ILO, Bangladesh formed the National Tripartite Plan of Action on fire safety and structural integrity (NTPA), which includes labour inspection reforms; occupational safety and health. In addition, Bangladesh made a plan to rebuild the Department of Inspections of Factories and Establishments (DIFE), develop a labour inspection strategy and road map and establish a national Employment Injury Protection and Rehabilitation scheme with the help of ILO.
Furthermore, to accelerate the drive of ensuring safety and security as well as improve the working environment in factories, Bangladesh has been working with Accord and Alliance. These two bodies, formed by foreign buyers and supported by Canada, the Netherlands and UK, are inspecting the factories to ensure workers’ rights and security. They have inspected 3,780 factories of which 1,549 were assessed through the national initiative. Among them, 39 factories have been closed for posing an immediate danger to workers.
Future policy directives
There are, however, various aspects where the country needs to work in the future through policies. Notably, it has embarked on making rules and regulations for labour rights regarding economic zones and alternative dispute settlement. There are still debates over implementing labour rights in EPZs especially when the country is trying to get GSP+ opportunities in the European market after graduation from LDC.
However, there is also room for improvement in dispute settlement procedures available currently. Due to the slow process and loopholes, quite often settlement procedures do not meet expectations. Apart from these, other issues that need to resolve are eliminating child labour in all its forms, strengthening investigations, and eliminating the backlog of cases at labour courts.
Bangladesh’s journey toward labor rights is still a work in progress. But the country's efforts show a positive trend. Through the legal drive and institutional mechanisms, laws and action plans have developed the scope and nature of those rights. In advancing the overall procedures, the country has made partnerships and collaborations with relevant stakeholders. Functioning trade unions, decreasing number of child labourers and the introduction of labour courts and foundations are demonstrations of the extraordinary achievements of Bangladesh in ensuring labour rights. But there are still miles to go for Bangladesh and efforts should not flag in the coming days.
(The author is a retired Bangladesh government official. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)