Every industrial sector in Bangladesh has suffered from unions which are not representative of the workforce, and which are organised by political parties for the purpose of extorting chanda from factories.
This has held back the development of a mature system of industrial relations in which factory owners and employees work together constructively. It also increases the risks of outside agitators influencing wildcat strikes that are against the long-term interests of the industry.
Workers need an effective voice to argue their concerns. Labour groups which exploit worker concerns for their own interests do not benefit the workforce and should be discouraged.
The best way to overcome this problem is to enable more genuinely representative worker organisations. Bangladesh’s amendment of the labour law last year and ratification of the ILO conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining are all moves which can assist this goal. The upholding of these rights is also seen as important to helping win back the GSP trade privilege withdrawn by the United States.
In this context, it is concerning that a recent survey of 21 factories around Dhaka reports instances of managers intimidating and mistreating employees involved in setting up and organising unions. Such actions not only breach the law but undermine necessary initiatives to protect and develop the sector.
The government and BGMEA should be more proactive in stopping the intimidation of trade union organisers in the RMG sector, as effective unions are necessary to defuse tensions between factory owners and workers. At the same time, the law must protect factories from extortion; a trade union should not become a cover for extortion.