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Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back for Bangladesh Workers

bangladesh-garment-workersRock Creek     Following the tragic garment fire fatalities and in the wake of European action finally joined by the United States in recent weeks, the Bangladesh government has finally issued new labor codes for workers in the country.   The results are disappointing despite the obvious hopes of the government that this meager effort would seem responsive to international condemnation of the lack of enforcement of safety standards and the persecution of workers and their rights to organize.

            The only thing that is totally clear is that the government still places the needs and interests of textile and other major exporters above interest in its citizens or workers in any shape or form.  Under the new code a step forward was the creation of a worker welfare fund of 5% of the profits, rather than gross sales, so this will be an area of constant contention as well, and of course there is an exemption for all manufacturers in the special export zones from making these payments despite the tens of thousands of workers employed there.  Additionally throwing another bone to manufacturers, any new business enjoys a three year grace period where strikes of any kind are banned by the government.

            Another step forward for workers in the new code discontinues the government’s practice of revealing the names of the workers signing petitions seeking a union, since that had essentially rung bells and whistles leading to the harassment, dismissal, and blackballing of many union supporters.  Some union leaders are unconvinced that the companies will not simply bribe the government labor officials and end up with the list anyway, but nonetheless, this is a step forward as is a commitment to require permitting for any factory owner who seeks to add additional floors to its physical plant.  Of course the government also lengthened the list of industries, including hospitals, where workers were barred from organizing.

            According to the New York Times, Human Rights Watch monitoring this situation believes that the new labor code makes it even harder to organize unions and sees the government’s effort as unlikely to assuage the concern of the global community.

            Part of the beef is the threshold showing of interest that triggers requirements to negotiate with a union.  In Bangladesh, as in most countries in Asia, there is no exclusive representation meaning that there is no situation where only one union represents all the workers in a site or with an employer.  In a multi-union organizing environment representation is “members-only,” meaning that once the threshold is achieved, the employer has to bargain at some level with any – and all – unions that reach the minimums.  In the old code and the new one, the threshold is 30% of the workforce and unions and their supporters had been lobbying for a lower number closer to 10%.  Employers don’t want to deal with a passel of different unions with different interests and, particularly in Bangladesh, different relationships with political parties that can sometimes lead to labor unrest and strikes prompted by issues before the government.  Workers can sign for more than one union, but clearly it is difficult to imagine one union getting 30% and others also getting 30%, almost forcing unions into a minority status, even if the majority of workers might favor a union, just different unions.  At the same time clearly the strategy of the government is to hope that 30% looks like an insignificant number in the global community where the standard is more frequently exclusive representation based on proving a majority.

            The one thing that the Bangladesh government correctly understands is that the worldwide ignorance about unions gives them a strong hand is keeping them either on a short lease or at arms’ length, but in this case 1200 deaths may make the whitewash hard to ignore.