Labour rights have suffered immensely in Bangladesh amid the coronavirus pandemic as companies cut down on workers to save money for continuing the enterprises.
Labour rights activists said some workers of different factories were forced to work longer hours for no extra pay, while some even had their salaries reduced on the pretext of business downturn.
The activists urged the government to set up labour courts in each industrial zone and quickly settle all existing cases which are pending in the labour court of the country.
Meanwhile, the European Union (EU), the largest export destination for Bangladesh, came up with the condition that the country must ensure human rights to remain eligible for the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) facility in their market.
The EU also called upon the Bangladesh government to improve the labour rights situation for the continuation of the duty-free trade facility.
Experts said the availability of the GSP facility given under the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) arrangement after 2023 depends on the protection of labour and human rights. So they also underscored the need for enforcing labour rights in Bangladesh to secure the GSP facility on a long-term basis.
They suggested that Bangladesh has to overcome numerous legislative, structural, and administrative challenges related to labour standards, especially when it comes to the smooth graduation from the LDC category.
Distinguished Fellow of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Professor Mustafizur Rahman said labor rights should be enforced to get GSP facilities of the EU market.
“The labour rights issues should be addressed now. EU is a big market for Bangladesh export earnings. We export our products 3 out of 5 percent in the market,” he added.
Mustafizur said Bangladesh would improve LDC graduation in 2026 instead of 2024. So, it’s time to forward the country’s economy.
President of Socialist Labour Front Razequzzaman Ratan says he has received a lot of allegations from workers that they had to work more hours during the pandemic, even as a portion of their salary was cut in that time.
“The violation of labour rights has vastly increased in Bangladesh amid the pandemic as companies cut the number of their workers to reduce their costs,” he also said.
Razequzzaman said labour court should be installed in each industrial zone. “More than 20,000 cases are pending in labour court. So, labourers don't take their grievances to court,” he also said.
Vice president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Exporter Association (BGMEA) Arshed Jamal underscored the need for a comprehensive labour policy to ensure the rights fully. “However, we took many initiatives for the sake of workers. We also train up 50,000 workers in every year,” he also said.
“Bangladesh has to overcome numerous legislative, structural, and administrative challenges related to labour standards. Gaining market access through the GSP+ scheme requires Bangladesh to comply with twenty-seven international conventions. Fifteen of which are related to human rights and the labour standards of ILO,” CPD research director Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem said.
He added that the EU is one of Bangladesh’s biggest trading partners. It accounts for 58% of the country’s total exports and 64% of the total apparel exports.
“The ‘zero duty’ access to EU will continue three years after official announcement as a ‘developing country’ (LDC graduate). If the preferences under EBA are not available after that, the exports of Bangladesh would face 8.7% duty on average. It is estimated that shipments would drop at a rate of 5.7% per year,” the researcher said.
“It is of utmost importance to ensure sustained reforms of labour rights standards by Bangladesh government, and their full alignment with International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions,” he added.
Dr Moazzem said legal complexities need to be taken care of to smooth processes in collective bargaining and to ensure labour rights. The socio-economic conditions in Bangladesh are such that many families are dependent on the income of their children. The only option for livelihood of many children is working in different establishments.
“So, the application of the provisions introduced in tackling child labour needs to be ensured through a planned approach that addresses the socio-economic contexts of the problem as well,” he recommended.
He added many of the workers are illiterate and so handling online registration procedures is difficult for them. There is a need for the proper training of workers and all persons involved regarding the whole registration process.
“Hopefully there will be adequate improvements in the areas of decent work and the related legal framework so that Bangladesh remains eligible for the GSP+ scheme. A time-bound action plan with specific responsibilities for concerned public institutions is urgently required to set in order necessary changes. Furthermore, the necessary technical support needs to be extended by the development partners and international organisations in this regard,” Dr Moazzem said.
He also claimed the majority of factories of the garment sector didn’t follow the lay-off and termination rules during COVID-19 pandemic period.
“The sector has lost jobs of 3.57 lakh workers during this period. The average number of workers in a factory reduced by 10.8% during December, 2019 to September, 2020. Although sample enterprises reported 2.7% of workers laid off, total job losses during this period was as high as 13.95%,” the researcher said.
Dr Moazzem said only 3.6% complied with the compensation principle (paid salary, outstanding and compensation). About 70% of factories paid the salary only. Non-compliance is much higher in factories located in Narayangonj and large size factories.
Mentioning their recent survey, he also said around 232 factories were closed during COVID period which is about 6.9% of total factories (selected 3342 factories). However, only 40% small factories applied for stimulus package against 90% of large factories,” he added.
He also said the database for workers should be improved. Special development programme needs to be designed for factories include technological up-gradation, management improvement, financial management improvement, buyers’ networking, and online based IT investment.