Registration of trade unions in the country's ready made garment sector saw a drastic fall in 2015 compared to the previous year.
Since the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 that took the lives of over 1,100 workers, calls have been made for effective trade unions that could empower workers to protest safety hazards.
According to data of the Joint Directorate of Labour (JDL), a total of 72 unions were registered in 2015, 61% less than those of last year's.
After Rana Plaza, the registration of trade unions gained momentum and 85 unions were registered in 2013 and 188 in 2014.
The $25.5 billion apparel industry has 3,500 active factories, while there are only about 493 trade unions.
Trade union leaders and experts blame the slowdown on cumbersome registration process, interference from local political leaders, lack of technical knowledge, fear of termination, and uncooperative owners and government officials.
Almost half of the applications for trade union registration in the RMG sector were rejected in the three years since the collapse of Rana Plaza building.
The Solidarity Centre, an international workers' rights group, says that since the Rana Plaza incident, a total of 697 unions applied for registration to the Joint Directorate of Labour of which only 330 were approved, while 367 were rejected.
“The government has included some problematic conditions in the Bangladesh Labour Act that make registration very difficult,” Nahidul Hasan Nayan, general secretary of Sammilita Garments Sramik Federation (United Garment Workers Federation) told the Dhaka Tribune.
“Owners are still not cooperating with workers in forming the unions and in some cases workers are being persecuted if they show interest in unionisation,” Nayan said.
Local political leaders were another factor, Nayan said.
“They help the owners by pressuring the workers not to form unions as it would hurt their interests of getting benefits from the owners.”
“The registration of trade unions were a result of pressures from the trade union and rights groups from home and abroad,” Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, assistant executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), told the Dhaka Tribune.
“As a result, their growth was not sustainable,” he said, adding that the mindset of owners towards trade unions had not changed.
It was almost impossible for union leaders to provide the documents the Labour Act required them to submit for union registration, Sultan said.
He also said that workers’ opinions were not included in the rules, though it was sought.
The workers had a lack of technical knowledge about the application process, while owners and government officials were uncooperative, Khondaker Golam Moazzem, additional research director of Centre for Policy Dialogue said.
“In the last two years, the government has given importance to workers. Since the safety and security issues have reached a certain level, the government should prioritise workers’ rights issues now,” he said.
Moazzem said workers should be made aware of their rights and what benefits they could enjoy if they have unions.
Authorities on the other hands said union registrations were getting rejected for the lack of necessary documents.
“We have formulated the rules of the labour act after having talked with all the stakeholders, including trade union leaders. If they now say it is too tough to comply, that’s absurd,” Md Mujibul Haque Chunnu, state minister for Labour and Employment told the Dhaka tribune.
“As per the rules, they will have to place all the documents with the applications. If there is any illegal rejection of applications, I will take immediate action,” he added.
The factory owners are very loyal to the laws and if the workers want to form unions, there is no objection from them, BGMEA Vice President Mahmud Hasan Khan Babu said.
“The workers should go through the proper process and follow the rules as we want a congenial working atmosphere, where both the workers and the owners are satisfied,” he added.