Bangladesh is one of the 10 worst countries in the world for working people
Obstacles to union formation
Workers’ rights in Bangladesh continued to be severely curtailed. Set up to attract foreign investment, the country’s eight Export Processing Zones prohibit workers from forming a trade union or freely expressing their rights. In the garment sector, which is the country’s largest industry and employs more than 4.5 million workers, attempts at forming unions were ruthlessly obstructed, while strikes were met with brutality by the country’s Industrial Police force.
The authorities also frustrated the establishment of unions by imposing a draconian registration process.
Workers' rights violations
Silencing the age of anger
On 4 June 2022, Dhaka police in Bangladesh opened fire with gunshots and tear gas, as well as using batons, against protesting garment workers at Mirpur and Azampur, leaving many workers injured. Thousands of factory workers from Chaity Garment, Intraco Fashion, Intraco Design, MBM Garment, Vision Garment, IDS Group, Kolka Garment and Dmox blocked roads in Dhaka demanding higher wages to meet the rising costs of living. Their last pay increase was in 2018.
Violent attacks on workers
At least 16 textile workers from Regent Textile Mills, in Bangladesh were injured on 4 April 2022 when they were baton-charged by police. Several hundred workers from the factory, which closed on 16 March, gathered in front of its gates to collect salary arrears. The workers were not allowed to enter the factory and consequently ended up blocking the road. When the police tried to remove them, heavy-handedly, a clash ensued and the police resorted to a baton charge, leaving four workers requiring hospital treatment.
Further protests were held in June and July outside the factory, with workers continuing to demand their unpaid arrears for the past 10 months. Despite repeated promises to pay the outstanding salaries, Regent Textiles have failed to keep their word.
In statements made in April 2022, the Bangladesh Apparel Workers Federation (BAWF) and the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) denounced the overall anti-union climate in the garment sector. More than 50 per cent of the unions registered since the Rana Plaza incident were yellow unions and have remained inactive over the years. Independent trade unions were not being registered by the labour department, while unions backed by factory owners have proliferated in the sector.
In Bangladesh, factory owners were still largely against trade unions and they forced workers not to join any union. In many cases, factory owners hired external forces to threaten workers who joined a union and used the police to harass union members. When an active federation in a factory filed an application for registration, labour department officials often imposed conditions in addition to those specified by the labour laws and rejected the application.
Workers excluded from labour protections
In the garment sector, which represents an overwhelming share of Bangladesh’s export economy, over 500,000 workers employed in export processing zones (EPZs) were not allowed to form or join unions, which left them without any real power to bargain for better working conditions. The situation worsened with the implementation of the 2019 Export Processing Zones Labour Act (ELA), which states that the workers can only join a workers’ welfare association (WWA), where they may not be given the full scope of collective bargaining. Workers were prohibited from organising any protest within the EPZ, and protests were often met with violent retaliation from the EPZ authorities.