Lima, a 25-year-old, works at a large garment factory in Dhaka.
She is married to a man who hails from her locality. Both of them toil away for long hours in the same workplace. They are surviving on what little they make and gladly accept things the way they are.
A little while later Lima realises that an incredible miracle is taking place inside of her. She is pregnant. Both husband and wife are thrilled, even though the pregnancy is a surprise one and hasn’t been planned for.
They start spending wisely to save money for the baby. However, Lima’s mind is abuzz with other things: Is she going to be replaced if the employers come to know she is pregnant? How will they survive with only one person winning the bread and a baby on the way?
Pregnant and unemployed
A few days later she informs her supervisor about her pregnancy. To her utter dismay, her supervisor starts scolding her. He belittles her working capabilities whenever she is fatigued. He verbally abuses her and even threatens to fire her from her job.
She did not expect this reaction.
It wasn’t so long ago that there were no adequate laws to protect the rights of pregnant women in the workplace. An employer could terminate a pregnant woman if he didn’t want her at work. There was no guarantee of a job if a woman wanted to return to work after delivering the baby. Working-class folk such as Lima cannot afford day-care centres, despite the fact that our RMG sector has emerged as the highest export earner of the country.
May Day is observed globally. With that in mind, we should take this opportunity to improve, realising that the lines between workers’ rights and human rights tend to get blurry
Female RMG workers have contributed significantly to the rapid growth of this industry, and we hear so much about how the industry is contributing to female empowerment across the entire country. These women are not only supporting their families but also ensuring female participation in the workforce, reducing gender inequality and poverty in the process.
And, yet, cases like Lima’s are still the norm.
The law of the land
The Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 (BLA2006) is supposed to allow working women maternity benefits. The law even contains provisions which make way for rights and benefits to which a pregnant worker is entitled. Section-45 of BLA2006 states that an employer cannot intentionally employ a woman in his establishment during the eight weeks immediately following the day of her delivery.
Moreover, a woman worker shall not work in any establishment during the eight weeks immediately following the day of her delivery.
The female workers shall not be involved in any work of arduous nature during 10 weeks prior to and after the delivery provided that it is brought to the attention of the employer.
Women workers are entitled to the payment of maternity benefit for the period of eight weeks preceding and immediately following the day of delivery.
The government has introduced Bangladesh Labour Rules 2015 through a gazette which made certain amendments in maternity law.
Rule 37 states that no one can make any remark so that a pregnant woman feels harassed mentally and physically; she will not be engaged in any risky work; she will have the right to use the lift; and, after delivery, there should be proper facilities made to support the baby’s nourishment.
However, rule 38 has narrowed down some scopes of S.46(2) of BLA2006.
An obvious issue
Some 85% of Bangladesh’s RMG workforce are women. In rural areas, extreme poverty forces many of them to leave the village in search of work in the city. Our economy largely relies on these female workers who make up the majority of the workforce.
Unfortunately, the most basic structure of our social system and practices are showing very little signs of development. For these working women, it is not a viable option to leave the job.
International Worker’s Day, or May Day, is observed globally on May 1.The day is celebrated in our country almost religiously. With that in mind, we should take this opportunity to improve, realising that, in a country that relies so heavily on working women, the lines between workers’ rights and human rights tend to get blurry. It is the mother’s womb that protects every child from day one after all.
The proper implementation of maternity laws and ethical practice in every organisation can ensure a woman’s participation in the workforce to its utmost, which would in turn contribute to our economic growth. It’s such an obvious problem for us to be focusing one, yet we seldom do. Here’s hoping the nation wises up.
Miti Sanjana is an Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh and an activist.