The state must protect workers' rights | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 01, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:00 PM, May 01, 2018

May Day

The state must protect workers' rights

I can recall there was an advertisement published in a renowned English daily sometime last year for employment for the training academy of a government department. The contractor's condition in supplying workforce was such that the employees supplied by the contractor would be compelled to work anytime as per the wish of the concerned officer; otherwise the contract would be terminated. It was revealed in the survey of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) on workplace grievances conducted in 2017 that 33 percent of grievances were over the issue of payment of overtime bill. Overtime is the extra hours that a worker works beyond eight hours of normal working time and the survey suggested that workers were compelled to do so because the normal wage was not enough for them to meet their family needs.

While the incident mentioned above happened in a government department, the survey paints a picture of the private sector that follows the law of the land. Bangladesh has been observing May Day for quite some time and while all government officials enjoy this holiday, workers of the country have no choice but to work extra hours and have to even struggle to receive payment for that work. It is unfortunate to see that the government nowadays employs through contractors instead of permanent employment. Moreover, such employment is conditional that there would be no specific working hours. Eighty percent of workers remain outside the purview of any legal binding. There are no specific working hours for them, there are no standards for determining the wage, and neither are they protected by any social safety programme.

Recently, as part of the internship programme of BILS, a few students from Jagannath University gathered information on marginal workers—one of whom was from a factory that makes scented sticks (agarbati) in Shayampur. The monthly wage of a female worker in that factory was Tk 1,400–1,500. We couldn't believe this at first but this is the harsh reality. There are a number of City Corporations and Pourashavas where there are cleaning staff who work on a daily basis and many of them get Tk 50–70 per day (except a few exceptions). The minimum wage of workers of the 43 government sectors, except for two or three, is one-third of the minimum wage determined by the pay commission for government employees.

Almost 80 percent of the workers, including agricultural and domestic workers, are outside the purview of the labour law of Bangladesh. The wage of a domestic worker is determined by how much the neighbour is paying. The domestic worker has to remain on high alert even when sleeping in case the youngest child of the house asks for water. Unfortunately, after 47 years of independence and despite the brave participation of workers in the movement for independence, untold sufferings of the working class continue. The Constitution, which is a result of that struggle, also has a provision for workers' rights in Article 15.

Over the past 10–15 years, around 2,000 branch-level workers of Grameen Bank have been working day and night. They are guards during the night, cleaning staff in the morning and work as delivery men (for documents, letters, etc.) in the day. They have been protesting against this for quite some time; they even went on hunger strike but in vain.

Bangladesh's youth are involved in businesses and industries as probationary officers, supervisors and junior officers. A huge number of the educated youth are outside of all types of legal safeguards. Many of them have to deposit their original certificates to the employers and sign a bond to work at least for five years. Despite being staff, due to their designations, many of them remain outside the purview of the labour law. For example, a cashier of a bank is called cash officer, or junior officer in garments. On the other hand, modification of definitions of workers and employers is done in such a manner in each of the amendments of the labour law that an ordinary employee because of his/her designation is left out of the purview of the labour law. They also don't have any rights to get organised.

The arena of permanent/regular employment is being made smaller by outsourcing, employment through contractors and artificial designations. In many of the multinational companies of the country, the number of master-role employees is higher than that of the permanent ones, and they have no other option but to work in uncertainty for years. If they raise their voice, they can be fired.

The construction industry is currently one of the most labour-intensive sectors. But there is not a single labourer under any of the big builders in this sector, rather there are only contractors. The owner of a renowned construction company, in a roundtable organised by Daily Prothom Alo, agreed to the fact that contractors deduct Tk 200 per head from female workers and Tk 100 per head from male workers out of the money allocated by builders. This way, two groups of people—employers and suppliers—are making profit through the employment of one worker.

There are no social safety net programmes for seven crore working class people. Those who work within the purview of the labour law go to work taking their life in hands, which is worth one lakh taka only. The owner of Tampaco Factory gave away Tk 1 lakh to the families of each of the ill-fated 40 workers who lost their lives in the 2016 fire incident in that factory. Nobody remembers the workers who lose their lives on a regular basis extracting stones in Sylhet because as per the law, they are not workers.

The only mechanism for working class people to build resistance against all this is trade unions. Despite being legal, it is almost impossible for a group of ordinary workers to form trade unions by overcoming all the hurdles. At present, industrial police and, in some cases, the thana police in the industrial areas seem more active than the labour department in resolving labour unrest, which is contradictory to the spirit of peaceful and sustainable industrial relationship development.

Moreover, in line with the pledge of May Day and in accordance with the directives of our Constitution, we have to ensure decent work, i.e. eight hours of work, rest, recreation, social safety and the ILO standard for decent work including the right to form trade union, which is at the same time a part of the country's international commitment. Our government has to remember that Bangladesh is a member state of ILO and a signatory of International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which were mainly formed to implement the underlying message of May Day.


Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed is the executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS). Email: ssultanua@yahoo.com


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