Trade unions are meant to protect the rights of workers – be it to ensure their workplace safety, bargain for adequate wages, and protect workers from being exploited.
In Bangladesh, however, over the last two and half decades, workers organisations have largely become an offshoot of mainstream political parties, exploited by the latter for political ends, much like what has happened to student politics in the country.
Trade unions, prominent labour leaders say, is often used by political parties to actually exert authority over the workers.
Communist Party of Bangladesh President Mujahidul Islam Selim said to Dhaka Tribune: “Trade unions with political affiliation are not a problem. The problem arises when trade unions turn into mafias or political thugs, ready to pounce on workers when they protest for their rights.”
Anwar Hossain, a garments worker working at Windy Apparrels in Ashulia, Savar, took part in last December’s movement in the readymade garment sector demanding a higher minimum wage.
He said: “Several of our workers demanding a higher minimum wage were threatened by leaders of the National Workers League.” The NWL is an associate organisation of the ruling party, the Awami League.
Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan, also executive president of Bangladesh Transport Workers’ Federation and a veteran labour leader, however said workers are often exploited to create anarchy in the industrial sector.
He said: “Unions leaders protest to create anarchy in the sector instead of working for the welfare of workers. Sometimes the trade union leaders do not understand the function and purpose of a trade union.”
Altogether, in Bangladesh, there are 7,726 trade unions that represent 2,815,914 workers across the country.
Among them, under the umbrella of 32 national federations, 1,362 trade unions are active with 1,083,367 workers, according to the Department of Labour, Bangladesh, up to January 31 this year. But a latest list found by the Dhaka Tribune shows there are now 31 federations with 1393 trade unions and 1,760,180 members.
Interestingly, almost half of trade unions are affiliated to the two political parties - Bangladesh Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Ruling party AL’s associate organisation National Workers League patronises 305 unions which represents 5,34,463 workers, which is over half of unionised workers while BNP has 279 trade unions under its wings, with its associate organisation Bangladesh Nationalist Workers Party representing 247,454 workers.
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Although May Day has been observed in Bangladesh since long, working conditions for labourers have yet to change to their benefit. In this photo, taken on Sunday, two employees carry on with their work at a construction site on the banks of the Buriganga River in Keraniganj, amid heavy dust Mehdi Hasan
The chicken and egg problem
Most prominent labour leaders agree that it is not so much that political party affiliation is in itself a problem, but that the affiliation often translates into loyalty to the interests of the party, even at the expense of the interests of workers.
Most unions affiliated to the ruling party or BNP are mostly busy taking part in political programs.
A Rana Plaza disaster survivor seeking anonymity said: “We are often called over to attend political rallies on Independence Day or Victory Day, more than we are called to take part in genuine workers’ protest.”
The problem is further compounded by most political parties now being led by factory owners.
Haider Akbar Khan Rono, a presidium member of Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) said: “The interest of owners and the interest of workers are two different things. When the interest of owners is served through the trade union then it cannot be called a trade union movement.”
Gano Sanghati Andolon convener Zonayed Saki said the workers’ movement in Bangladesh has been completely destroyed by the ruling political parties’ monopolisation of trade unions.
“Trade unions are very important for the management of workers. But when trade unions serve a political interest or the personal interest of its leaders, then it actually brings harm to industries.
“Trade unions affiliated with political parties genuinely concerned about workers’ rights cannot actually function because of threat from the ruling party affiliated bodies.”
Rashed Khan Menon, chairman of Workers Party of Bangladesh and Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister: “When trade unions are controlled by the big political parties or NGOs, they stop working for workers’ interest.”
He also said political affiliation is fine, but political flattery is harmful.
Mujahidul said when workers are divided along party lines instead of being united for their rights, workers themselves suffer the most. Most union leaders in the country try to align themselves to the ruling party, AL or BNP, for personal and political gains, he added.
He cited the fate of the Bangladesh Labour Law 2006 (amended in 2013) as an example of how something that was supposed to serve workers ended up serving the owners more because of a lack of unity among the workers’ leaders.
“Owners do not want to raise the salary of workers but spend huge amounts to patronise these Mafia-like unions who eventually ruin the interest of the industry,” he said.
Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, said: “We have industrial unrests now because trade unions no longer work in the interest of workers. This became especially evident since 1991 when unions got drawn into vote politics and came under the wings of political parties.”
“Workers leaders nowadays are not inspired by ideology but narrow personal and political gains,” he added.
The political parties also do not allow capable leaders, with workers’ interest in mind, to come to the fore of union leadership.
Workers’ movement in the country only exists to serve the narrow interests of some people, he added.
Instead of collective bargaining and other legitimate rules of engagement, the labour movement in the country now consists of violent protests and forcing the government to sit at a table with them, said Sultan. Eventually, either the exorbitant demands are met or the movement is quashed through the violent action from law enforcers.
The remainder of trade unions in the country are affiliated with the leftist political parties of the country, some with the opposition in the parliament, Jatiya Party, and very few with the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami.
Among the 31, 16 trade unions claim they work as independent trade unions and have no affiliation to any political parties.
Political leaders however pointed out that most of these trade unions are funded by international NGOs.
Several officials of the Labour Department however confirmed that most trade unions are nominally or actively affiliated to the ruling party.
A senior official of the Labour Ministry said to the Dhaka Tribune requesting anonymity: “When they apply for registration they do not have a political identity, as the law does not allow for political affiliation. But to make sure they get the registration, they have to secure ties to the political parties.”