Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Bangladesh Amends Labor Law but Critics See Its Constraints ; While Safety Protections Are Improved, Unions Say Organizing Is Now Harder

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Bangladesh Amends Labor Law but Critics See Its Constraints ; While Safety Protections Are Improved, Unions Say Organizing Is Now Harder

Article excerpt

Some rights groups said the law, adopted three weeks after the United States suspended Bangladesh's trade preferences, took several steps backward.

Facing intense international pressure to improve conditions for garment workers, Bangladeshi lawmakers amended the country's labor law this week. But while the officials called the new law a landmark strengthening of workers' protections, rights groups said the law made only modest changes and took numerous steps backward that undercut unions.

Bangladeshi lawmakers adopted the new law three weeks after the United States suspended Bangladesh's trade preferences, saying that labor rights and safety violations were far too prevalent in that country's factories. Moreover, the European Union has threatened to revoke Bangladesh's trade privileges for similar reasons.

Speaking about the new law, Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, the chairman of the parliamentary subcommittee on labor reforms, told Reuters: "The aim was to ensure workers' rights are strengthened, and we have done that. I am hoping this will assuage global fears around this issue."

The Bangladeshi government has faced fierce pressure to improve conditions for the nation's four million garment workers since the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in April, killing 1,129 people.

Under the new law, factories will be required to set aside 5 percent of their profit for a welfare fund for employees, although the law exempts export-oriented factories. Apparel is Bangladesh's dominant industry, with $18 billion in annual exports, making it the world's second-largest garment exporter after China.

As under the old law, workers hoping to form a union must gather signatures from 30 percent of a company's workers -- a level that was onerous, labor leaders said, because many apparel manufacturers have thousands of workers. To make unionizing easier, labor leaders had sought a 10 percent threshold. In Bangladesh, several unions might represent employees in a single factory.

Business leaders complain that Bangladeshi unions are highly political and sometimes stage disruptive strikes as a complementary tactic to political blocs' lobbying and infighting.

In a step that could help unionization, the new law bars the country's Labor Ministry from giving factory owners the list of the 30 percent of workers who want to form a union. …

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