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.



Ending the NLRB’s “Non-Admissions” Policy

no-path-to-justiceToronto   In long established practice when unions prove conclusively that companies have broken the National Labor Relations Act and unjustly discriminated against a worker for union activity through discipline or termination, and there is a settlement, the company signs a “non-admissions” statement, saying that they are not admitting guilt even though they are promising not to do evil in the future or are reinstating the worker to her job.  Having experienced this scores of times, it is often a hollow victory, since the company within days will be maintaining to workers that in essence they had their fingers crossed and were really innocent but settled just to save money and get the union off their backs.

In response to the fact that federal judges have been increasingly critical of the Securities Exchange Commission policy of letting big companies off with this kind of hand slap, the new Chair of the SEC, Mary Jo White, seems to finally be backing away from non-admissions.  According to reports of a memo to enforcement staff of the SEC:

In a departure from long-established practice, the recently confirmed chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mary Jo White, said this week that defendants would no longer be allowed to settle some cases while “neither admitting nor denying” wrongdoing. “In the interest of public accountability, you need admissions” in some cases, Ms. White told me. “Defendants are going to have to own up to their conduct on the public record,” she said. “This will help with deterrence, and it’s a matter of strengthening our hand in terms of enforcement.”

Seems like common sense doesn’t it?   Why shouldn’t this kind of policy shift for exactly the same reasons be true in other federal enforcement agencies, like the NLRB for workers’ rights?  God knows we need more public accountability and companies that are discriminating against the rights of workers under the law should have to “own up to their conduct” in those situations as well.

The flood tide of lawyers overwhelming governmental bureaucracies has had the effect of too often drowning out the rights and entitlements of citizens, whether workers or investors or whatever, simply because big companies can always threaten to stall, obfuscate, and run up the costs for everyone with their “justice delayed is justice denied” standard operating procedures.  The NLRB, the EEOC, the SEC, and a host of others need to start suiting up for citizen and workers’ rights and making sure that when the big boys do wrong they are required to fess up, rather than whitewash the matter and return the next day to “business as usual.”  The non-admissions clause in settlements should become a distant, painful memory, not an ever present part of government action and play-pretend enforcement agencies.