A report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has listed Bangladesh among the top 10 countries with the least workers’ rights.
The annual “Global Rights Index” ranks countries on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being the worst) based on how much respect they have for workers rights. Criteria assessed include civil rights, the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike, the right to freely associate and access to due process rights.
The 2017 report places great emphasis on the RMG workers’ unrest in Ashulia in December 2016. A week-long strike took place over unclear demands. Authorities took retaliatory actions swiftly against the RMG workers, pressing charges against 1,000 workers and suspending at least 1,600 until up to early January 2017.
At a more subtle level of anti-union discrimination, systematic obstacles remain to the registration of trade unions in Bangladesh, especially in the garments sector. A high-level tripartite ILO mission to the country in mid-April 2016 expressed concern about the rate of trade union registration.
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Indeed, only about 10% of Bangladesh’s more than 4,500 garment factories have registered unions, as labour law requires an unreasonably high 30% of workers to agree to form a union and mandates excessive registration procedures, while the government has vaguely-defined powers to cancel a union’s registration. Factory managers also threaten and attack unions and their members with impunity.
In September 2016, transport workers in Dhaka went on strike throughout protesting the death of one of their leaders in an attack by a gang of assailants. The gang hacked Md Haidar Ali, 40, an executive member of Barguna Road Transport Labourers Union, to death. Witnesses said the assailants attacked him after he had come out of his home.
In Bangladesh, government data from August 2016 showed that only 23 factories in the Ashulia garment zone had registered unions.
Anti-union dismissals continue at Chevron
In December 2016, IndustriALL Global Union reported that the Chevron oil company had dismissed 145 workers from its Bangladesh operations. Back in May 2015 the workers had sought to form a union, and called for permanent contracts. The great majority of the 500-strong workforce were on “temporary” contracts.
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The union organisers were promptly dismissed at the time – some via text message – and further dismissals followed. Throughout 2016 the company continued to ignore workers’ collective demands for regularisation and union recognition.
Union busting at garment factory
Habib Fashions garment factory tried to block the formation of a union and then shut down. The Sommilito Garment Sramik Federation (SGSF) applied to register a union at the factory with the Joint Director of Labour (JDL) on 30 June 2016. They were seeking to improve working conditions, such as the unacceptably long hours. Workers were forced to work from 6am to 10pm during Ramadan in June, for example, to fulfil orders on time.
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The JDL wrote to SGSF raising certain objections concerning its application, which the union then began to address. While it was working on this, the factory management met SGSF leaders on 19 July 2016 and asked them to withdraw the application for union registration. When SGSF refused, the factory management began shifting machinery on the night of 27 July 2016 and declared a temporary closure to take effect as of August 2016, claiming it did not have any orders to fulfill. The Dhaka-based factory was a subcontractor to many factories producing for international brands, however, and still had plenty of orders on its books. The SGSF believed the closure was purely to prevent the formation of the union and to discourage any future attempts at organising.