Cornered by domestic and international pressure following April’s collapse of the Rana Plaza building and other tragedies, the Bangladeshi parliament ratified changes to the Labor Act on Monday, Reuters reported.
Revisions consist of 87 amendments to the original 2006 Labor Law, which allowed factory owners to veto the creation of unions, but the International Labour Organization said the law still does not do enough to protect workers rights and conditions, or prevent tragedies — and many activists agree.
“It appears that the government is amending the law under foreign pressure, not in the interest of the workers,” Rashed Khan Menon, president of the Workers Party of Bangladesh told the Dhaka Tribune. “To me, the law doesn’t reflect the interest of the workers.”
Under the new law, up to five trade unions can be formed in one factory rather than the two allowed by the previous law—a move that some activist agree is a step in the right direction — and factories are required to deposit 5 percent of their annual profits into provident and welfare funds for workers.
Still, many are finding the revision problematic, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
For one, fully export-oriented factories are exempted from having to commit the 5 percent share of earnings. Secondly, factory owners may still have the ability to create obstacles for unions, which many owners have said are “unusually disruptive in Bangladesh.”
"Although union members no longer have to be vetted by owners, the directorate of labor still has wide discretionary powers," Abul Kalam Muhammad Nasim, senior legal counsel at the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in Dhaka, told the WSJ. "In practice, that means owners may be able to block unions."
The revised Act presents several more significant negative impacts on unions and working conditions, according to Menon, who has said that the interests of the factory owners more heavily influenced the parliament’s decision than those of the workers did.
While the Act allows for greater leeway in unionizing, the government will still be able to end strikes if it decides the strike would cause “serious hardship to the community” or is “prejudicial to the national interest” — clauses written in language that may be vague enough to make them widely and unpredictably applicable.
The law will increase governmental control over unions’ access to foreign funding by demanding “prior approval from the Labor and Employment Ministry before either trade unions or employer organizations could receive ‘technical, technological, health & safety and financial support’ from international sources,” according to Human Rights Watch.
While The Daily Star reported that a worker’s relatives will receive compensation equivalent to 45 days’ salary if that worker were to die during service, The Dhaka Tribune’s article called for the compensation for deaths and injuries to be “made equal to the loss of earning in a lifetime.”
The government has also reportedly still failed to carry out adequate safety inspections to improve working conditions.
While not nearly enough, activists say, the law does contain some important provisions that will impact laborers positively — even if they still require a bit more work.
The new amendments prohibit discrimination based on sex and disability, and call for equal wages for equal work, but they include no measures with which to wrestle the sexual harassment of women, who make up the majority of the garment factory workforce.
In fact, HRW reported, “in offering amendments to the labor law, the government has missed an important opportunity to carry out 2009 High Court guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace.”
Adding that the implementation of the new provisions on worker safety and rights is a test of promises, and international companies sourcing from Bangladesh must continue applying pressure.
“The positive provisions in the new labor law demand a serious commitment to enforcing them,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for HRW. “International companies sourcing from Bangladesh should press the government to recognize that empowered workers and unions are one of the best ways to ensure that reforms are actually made. If strong unions had been allowed when cracks first appeared at Rana Plaza, workers wouldn’t have been bullied into going to work the next day and then being killed when the building collapsed.”