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The state of the unions

  • Published at 12:01 am September 20th, 2019
web-Apparel workers are at work in a factory  MEHEDI HASAN
Photo: Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Why our trade unions are failing

A trade union is an independent body of workers that supports and forwards the rights and development of workers, and brings them to the management. 

It can be defined as an organization where workers can raise their voices and demands through collective bargaining. 

Article 38 of the Bangladesh Constitution, titled “Freedom of Association,” denotes that every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of morality or public order. 

Along with this article, Sections 176 and 177 of the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 respectively dictates the functions, registration process, and so on.

Trade unions in Bangladesh were not properly administered until some international organizations paid attention to recent mishaps and degradation of workers’ working conditions. 

Trade unions have seen changes and have been subject to many external influences from various international watchdogs. The present scenario of trade unions in Bangladesh is not up to the mark, and beset with lots of difficulties. 

A strong and effective labour management system can undoubtedly play a major role in keeping the industrial relationship sound. 

From an empirical study on the research of trade union functioning, it can be noticed that most industries and workplaces lack a good management system. 

Due to poor labour management, a lack of discipline among the members has become very common. As a consequence, management and labourers always stand in antagonistic relations against each other. 

Due to the lack of proper guidance, the labourers are becoming ineffective members. They don’t even bother about the rules and regulations which create insincere union members.

One of the most frustrating facts is the political affiliation of trade unions. 98% of trade unions are interconnected with political parties, for which they are deprived of becoming strong partners in collective bargaining. The politicization of a trade union causes the loss of its distinct identity. 

Another crux is the multiplicity of trade unions. Multiplicity of trade unions hold multiple political and ideological overtones where one is distinctive from the other.

 Each and every trade union stays rigid in its own philosophy -- not cooperating with one another -- causing conflict. 

Due to divisional overtones, the workers cannot stay in a united form, breaking the topmost important requirement of a trade union. 

A lack of unity and knowledge are contributing factors in this regard. 

Workers who are new to any workplace are unaware of their rights and duties. Poor members of trade unions having weak union performance are like a burden. 

The lack of solidarity among trade unions, provincialism, patronage of vested interest groups, and internal conflicts are some of the reasons that have led to the fragmentation of trade unions. 

Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, proper punishment for violating the labour code is absent. If the proper execution was implemented, workers wouldn’t dare to break the law. In the end, the union leaders wouldn’t engage in corrupt, dishonest, or unethical activities. 

Another problem is the inadequate number of trade unions compared to the total labour force in Bangladesh. The average membership of trade unions has declined significantly. Trade union density is approximately 1.12% of the total labour forces. 

The presence of trade unions in the private export-oriented sectors -- RMG, EPZ, shrimp exporting firm, leather goods -- is very weak. For instance, although there are more than 40 unions representing garment workers, the level of unionization among workers is very poor.

Trade unionism in sectors like nursing or rural electrification is banned. Government and private owners also discourage trade unions in re-rolling mills, cement factories, and so on. Sometimes, the trade union leaders and members are intimidated and harassed.

A strong and disciplined trade union lowers the gap of authority between workers and employers. To eradicate the above cruxes and to strengthen the trade union movement in Bangladesh, accountability and competency of the union leaders must be ensured. 

Skilled leadership should come from the ranks. They should have coherent and well-conceived objectives to turn trade unions into a solid foundation. 

Trade union activities must be enhanced, union leaders must be given priority, and they should always encourage the members to increase productivity. 

Management must help and conduct unions to settle industrial conflicts. 

Leaders must try their utmost to seek out the rational problems of the workers, and last but not least, the government should not use any trade union as an associate organization of political parties. 

Nadim Zawad Akil is a student of law.