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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 304
January 12, 2013

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Rights Advocacy

Protecting workers rights


Ready Made Garments (RMG) is the largest export sector of Bangladesh and thus one of the major drivers of country's economy. It is the highest foreign exchange earner, it employs largest number of people and it generates vibration for other sectors. This industry has successfully transformed Bangladesh into an export-oriented economy. But for the yawning greed of owners, workers are at the risk of death. Day by day illegally and with disturbed plan growing numbers of garments can no way ensure a better working condition for the workers by the owners neither the business organizations nor the government. For this reason the dead go through a dark passage of sadness and sorrow. Within the last twenty years accrued 212 fire events in garment factories. According to several sources around 700 workers died for it. Recently on the 24th November 2012, a garments factory named Tazreen Fashion Limited, a sister company of Tuba Group located outside of Dhaka in Ashulia was on fire at approximately 6.00 pm. This fire continued till the early morning of 25th November. According to official government statistics, the total numbers of death are 113 and hundreds are injured. It is the picture of our garment factories. Though Bangladesh has laws, rules and regulations for the safety of the workers but for the club-law of owners no action can be possible to be enforced.

What is the condition of laws for the garments and its workers?
The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh Constitution ensures the Labour rights by Article 15, 20 and 34. In The Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, the safety of working place was allocated in different clauses. In spite of having safety measures in Labour Act they are not applied. With reference to Building Construction Act, 1952 and also Rules of 1996 make emphasis on assuring workers security. Notably, factories are running the course avoiding the laws and thus occurring a number of accidents. In The Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 there is clear provisions regarding safety of the workers and precautions in case fire. Section 62 of the Labour Act provides that every establishment shall have a fire escape route or stair connected to every floor and the gates should be unlocked of it with the presence of fire protection equipments. According to the Factories Rules 1979, to protect from the grasping fire the stair must be wide enough. According to the Rule 10 (3) of Building Contraction Rules 1996, for commercial purposes building can be built in industrial areas or residential areas but it should be according to the law. By the overall synopsis it is clear as day light that if the conducts provided in laws could be followed, loss of lives and damages could be avoided. As a matter of regret that owners and authority did not count on that. This is a clear view of negligence of duties. Even section 304(A) of the Penal Code, 1860 would be applied because of death for the causes of negligence. But the proper enforcement of it is not at all even.

Limited Trade Union rights in the garments sector
In the ready-made garments (RMG) sector there are only 63,000 unionised workers out of 3.5 million, mostly young women. In some 5,000 factories there are 140 unions but only 20-30 of these unions are active. In the whole RMG sector, there were only two new union registrations in 2008, none in 2009 or 2010, and just one in 2011. Trade union rights are not adequately protected in law, while the Article 38 of Peoples Republic of Bangladesh Constitution provides freedom of association and also section 176 of the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006. However, in Bangladesh firms investing in EPZs are exempt from Labour Law. Bangladesh is a member country of ILO, concerned have adopted the core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), including Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, and Convention No. 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. Denying workers in the zones the right to belong to and be represented by trade unions is a flagrant violation of these international labour standards. Bangladesh's six export processing zones are currently exempt from the major laws establishing freedom of association and the rights to bargain collectively, so no professional or industry-based unions are allowed. In July 2004 parliament passed a bill allowing limited freedom of association rights in EPZs, “The EPZ Trade Union and Industrial Relations Bill 2004.” The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association recommended numerous amendments to the law to bring it into compliance with Conventions 87 and 98 which Bangladesh has ratified. An amendment on 2010 renamed the 'Workers Associations' as 'Workers Welfare Societies' but essentially did not change anything. So far the government of Bangladesh has fundamentally failed to take any appreciable step to comply with the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association's recommendations and garment workers suffer a lot.

The garment sector in Bangladesh contributes more than 70 percent of the national income and 80 percent of the garment workers are female. Due to participation in this income generating sector workers life and status in the society got upgraded. ASK along with BLAST, Nijera Kori and BRAC filed writ petition (Writ Petition No. 15693 of 2012) on 26 November 2012 against the failure of the respondents to ensure effective enforcement of applicable laws on work-place safety in particular regarding prevention of deaths and injuries of workers from fire in garments manufacturing factories. Court gave some directions. For the welfare of the workers and also the country, government and related authority should follow it. In the case of National Assoc. for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama, (1958) 357 US 449, the court held that- “The freedom to associate includes the right to organise and join in any association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas pertaining to religious, economic, civic, political, cultural or other matters.” That means freedom to associate and fulfils of workers' rights can upgraded the workers skill and other securities. So the Garment Factories and Export Processing Zones (EPZs) should be governed by the same Labour Act that applied in the rest of the country and special EPZ laws should be amended in order to comply with international standards. So due to ensuring the Labour rights and their securities the government of Bangladesh must enforce law and gives rights to freedom of association.

The writer is an Apprentice Lawyer, District Judge Court, Chittagong.




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