Bangladesh's Labor Reform Puts Profits Before Workers

Bangladeshi volunteers and rescue workers are pictured at the scene after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on April 25, 2013. Survivors cried out to rescuers April 25 from the rubble of a block of garment factories in Bangladesh that collapsed killing 175 people, sparking criticism of their Western clients. AFP PHOTO/Munir uz ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Bangladeshi volunteers and rescue workers are pictured at the scene after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on April 25, 2013. Survivors cried out to rescuers April 25 from the rubble of a block of garment factories in Bangladesh that collapsed killing 175 people, sparking criticism of their Western clients. AFP PHOTO/Munir uz ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse that claimed 1,129 lives, the Bangladeshi government announced earlier this month that it had made dozens of amendments to national labor law in an effort to better protect workers. While those changes have been hailed in the media as pro-worker and stronger than earlier law, in reality those amendments barely improve safeguards for impoverished garment-sector workers, and in some cases they undermine existing ones.

Legal experts and labor rights activists in Bangladesh explained to The Huffington Post how a number of the amendments will ultimately benefit business interests, rather than the employees they were intended to serve.

"The greed for profit has pushed Bangladesh's garment industry into its present, disastrous condition," said Salim Ahsan Khan, legal counselor at The Solidarity Center, a global labor rights group. "And it's for the same greed that we miss this opportunity to strengthen laws needed for a growing garment industry."

For starters, the amendments do nothing to ramp up the already-weak punishments for factory owners who put their workers in danger. The Rana Plaza factory owners and managers were given the highest charge possible under the law: contravention of law with dangerous results, or failing to warn workers ahead of an accident, resulting in a loss of life (though the owners forced workers to enter the building). The punishment for one of the most deadly tragedies in Bangladesh's history? If convicted, those responsible would be sentenced to a mere four years in prison. The recent amendments leave such modest sentencing in place.

"Punishments are there in the law to deter violators. But, unfortunately, the amendments do not deal with their weakness," said AKM Nasim, senior legal counselor at The Solidarity Center.

It is widely believed that disasters continue to plague the garment industry because factory owners have little to fear in the way of punishment. In the case of Rana Plaza, the tragedy likely never would have happened had the owners of the building and factories not pressured workers to clock in after dangerous cracks were discovered in the structure. Over the course of the past decade, few Bangladeshi business owners have been held to account in a spate of disasters that have claimed some 6,000 lives.

The recent amendments to labor law do incorporate new building and construction codes. But legal experts say that because these provisions don't come with serious offenses for business owners who fail to comply with the new codes, there is little incentive for them to improve their buildings. Furthermore, influential businessmen in Bangladesh have a way of avoiding such violations to begin with; government inspectors are often resistant to cite them, due to their strong influence on the government.

Several of the amendments to labor law are supposed to make it easier for workers to unionize in a country where collective bargaining is weak. Unfortunately, much of the unionization process is now left to the discretionary power of certain bureaucrats. Under the new amendments, the registrar for trade unions can deny workers the permission to unionize if the official is unsatisfied with the petition. This provision has angered workers and labor rights activists alike, given the country's infamous history of corruption. The registrar, they worry, may end up catering to powerful businessmen and denying workers their union elections.

"The law should have been that workers cannot be prevented from unionizing once some specific requirements are met," Nasim said. "But in addition to meeting the requirements, the law requires you to satisfy the registrar."

Like before, the workers will need to show support of 30 percent of their colleagues in order to apply for union registration. Labor rights activists had wanted that requirement reduced to 10 percent, due to the hurdles that come with organizing a massive factory. But that proposal was turned down.

Still, workers found small victories in the changes to unionization guidelines. Owners, for instance, will no longer be supplied by the government with a list of workers seeking to unionize -- a procedure that in the past had led to suspensions, firings and crackdowns on organizing efforts. The amendments also partly fulfilled workers' demands that employees from outside factories be allowed in particular unions. Now, 10 percent of the union members in government-owned factories may come from outside the factory, although private-sector factories are carved out of this stipulation. (Government factories are almost defunct in Bangladesh. For example, almost all garment factories -- the primary industry in the country -- are private.)

Despite these modest benefits for workers, unionization remains illegal in government-controlled export processing zones. Even after the most recent changes, no union is allowed inside any of the official processing zones, though many of the plants that produce clothes for Western countries are located in these areas.

And the government still reserves the right to stop any demonstration or strike deemed disruptive to the community or harmful to the national interest. The historical record indicates there is little chance for change here: Since the rise of Bangladesh's garment industry in the late 1970s, every decent-sized demonstration has been declared disruptive. Even the 2006 labor unrest -- which, after decades of industrial growth, led to the formulation of the country's minimum wage -- was identified by the government as an international conspiracy to destroy the country's garment industry.

Furthermore, the labor law amendments appear to have made it easier to dismiss workers. According to the amendments, owners can dismiss workers accused of "misconduct" without giving them severance benefits. Earlier, such a dismissal required payment. Labor rights activists fear this will now be abused by the owners, who will use the provision to target union activists.

"It will not be possible for the union leaders to work for the workers freely, since they'll work in fear of losing their jobs," Nasim said.

The amendments also exempt export-oriented factories from having to share 5 percent of their profits with workers, as they were previously required to do, at least in theory. Of course, Bangladesh's primary export-oriented sector is the garment industry. Labor rights activists claim this amendment will benefit several thousand factory owners at the expense of about four million workers.

"The labor law is amended only to meet owners' expectations," said Nazma Akter, president of the Sammilito Garment Shramik Federation, a trade union association.

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, says that another provision in the amendments sanctions the practice of outsourcing. While contracting out factory work had been loosely permitted before, now contractors who supply workers to factories will register with the government. According to Akter, the new law is a de facto encouragement of the practice.

Nasim, the lawyer, said more outsourcing will allow factory owners to dodge the responsibilities they have as workers' direct employers. The responsibility will now instead fall to the contracted labor supplier.

Nazma and Kalpona have good reason to believe the industry will benefit more from the new amendments, rather than workers. More than a third of the lawmakers who approved the legal changes are businessmen, most of them in the garment sector. Nearly half of those lawmakers are from the ruling coalition government, and many of them were involved in bringing the amendments to pass.

A number of the most recent measures are almost comically meaningless -- such as those changing the use of the word "latrine" in the earlier law. Other amendments dealt with clarifying language in previous legislation, and even corrected punctuation marks.

When contacted by HuffPost, Atiqul Islam, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, insisted that the new amendments are strong, though he said they would be a challenge for businesses to comply with.

"However, I welcome this law for the sake of our garment industry," he said.

When asked about the shortcomings in the amendments that have been detailed by labor activists and others, Islam said he hadn't noticed them, then cut the interview short.

"I have to take a look at it again," he said. "I need to leave this conversation now. I am in the middle of my prayer."

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