Report for the WTO General Council Review of the trade politics of Bangladesh (Geneva, 2 and 4 May 2000)

ICFTU Report, 2 May 2000


While Bangladesh has ratified six of the core ILO labour conventions, there are serious violations of all the core labour standards. In every area, extensive and far-reaching measures are needed to comply with the commitments Bangladesh accepted at Singapore in 1996 and Geneva in 1998 in the WTO Ministerial Declarations and in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted in June 1998.

Bangladesh has ratified both the core ILO conventions protecting trade union rights. However, most public sector workers cannot join trade unions at all, while private sector workers face immense legal and practical obstacles to organising, including harassment, intimidation and dismissal. Unions are not protected against interference by employers and there are serious constraints on the right to strike. What protections of workers' rights do exist in labour law are rarely implemented. There are grave violations of trade union rights in the textiles and apparel, electronics component and leather industries both inside and outside the country's export processing zones, which are presently being expanded.

Bangladesh has ratified both the core ILO Conventions on discrimination. There is significant gender segregation in the labour force and discrimination against women in employment, including in export industries such as garments and electronics. Women form most of the work-force in the EPZs.

Bangladesh has ratified neither of the ILO core conventions on child labour. There are over six million child labourers, including in export sectors like garments and leather production.

Bangladesh has ratified both core ILO conventions on forced labour. However, there is much servitude of domestic workers and substantial trafficking in women and children for the purpose of forced prostitution.



This report on the respect of internationally recognised core labour standards in Bangladesh is one of the series the ICFTU is producing in accordance with the Ministerial Declaration adopted at the first Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) (Singapore, 9-13 December 1996) and endorsed at the second WTO Ministerial Conference (Geneva, 18-20 May 1998) in which the Ministers stated: “We renew our commitment to the observance of internationally recognised core labour standards.” These standards were further upheld in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted by the 174 member countries of the ILO at the International Labour Conference in June 1998.

The ICFTU has five affiliates in Bangladesh: the Bangladesh Jatio Sramik League (BJSL), the Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Sramik Dal (BJSD), the Jatiya Sramik Party (JSP), the Bangladesh Free Trade Union Congress (BFTUC) and the Jatio Sramik League (JSL), which are organised together in the ICFTU Bangladesh Council. About 1.8 million of the country's 5 million workers in the formal sector belong to unions, out of a total work force of approximately 58 million. However, many so-called “unions” are not controlled by workers but are directed by political factions or criminal elements, a situation that has been tolerated by successive governments. Partly as a result, there are nowadays a total of 23 national trade union centres in Bangladesh and approximately 5,450 trade unions.

I. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining In 1972, Bangladesh ratified ILO Convention No. 87 (1948), the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention and ILO Convention No. 98 (1949), the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention.

Violations of freedom of association

Many workers are prohibited from belonging to trade unions, including public servants (with the exception of railway, posts and telecommunications workers), teachers and nurses, professional and managerial staff in the public and state sector, workers in export processing zones (see below), workers on government farms and co-operatives, security personnel and workers at the Rural Electrification Board, Security Printing Press and Ordnance Factories. While some of these workers have formed associations or unregistered unions, they cannot bargain collectively. Government-appointed wage commissions usually set wages, fringe benefits, leave, bonuses, maternity benefits and working conditions in the public and state-owned sector. Such recommendations are binding and may not be disputed.

Thirty per cent of workers in any workplace must belong to a union before it can be registered. A union can be dissolved if membership drops below this figure. The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations has called on the government to amend the 30 per cent provision as it is a restriction of the right of all workers to join a trade union.

Initial and continued registration of trade unions is obligatory. Workers can be punished for failing to register a union or for carrying out union activities without registration. There is no provision in the law to enable a trade union to be registered on a nation-wide basis—thereby depriving the unions of, among other things, the financial basis needed to function effectively—and, by virtue of a court decision, unions composed of workers from different establishments owned by different employers are prohibited. This has been criticised by the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association, which in response to an ICFTU complaint stated in 1996 “that the free exercise of the right to establish and join unions implies the free determination of the structure and composition of unions and that under Article 2 of Convention No. 87, workers have the right to establish organisations of their own choosing, including organisations grouping together workers from different workplaces and different cities”.

The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations has recently criticised the Government's rejections of several applications for registration by trade unions in the textile, metal, and garment sectors as being on unjustified grounds.

Would-be unionists are forbidden to engage in many activities prior to registration, and legally are not protected from employer retaliation during this period. Employers usually discourage registration or any union activity, sometimes with violence or working in collaboration with local police. Requests for registration frequently result in the names of union members being given to the employers concerned, who immediately dismiss them. In consequence, trade unions are rare and there is little collective bargaining.

In the garment sector in particular, workers trying to organise unions over the last few years have been threatened, intimidated and frequently dismissed. The authorities have colluded with employers to stop unions being set up and registered. It is reported that through an unofficial order, the government has stopped almost all registration in the garments factories.

Interference in union affairs and the right to strike

The Registrar of Trade Unions has wide powers to interfere in internal union affairs. He can enter union premises and inspect documents.

Legal protection against anti-union discrimination is inadequate. Unions are not protected against acts of interference by employers. Workers suspected of trade union activities are victimised and can be transferred arbitrarily under the Industrial Relations Ordinance, 1969 (IRO). The Labour Court's overall effectiveness is hampered by a serious case backlog, extending in some cases for over ten years. There are indications that many of its decisions have been the result of corrupt intervention by employers.

Candidates for union office have to be current or former employees of an establishment or group of establishments. A worker dismissed for mis-conduct is not entitled to become a trade union officer. This provision brings the risk that a trade unionist could be sacked to prevent them from becoming a union official, and this is frequently the case.

A strike can be banned at any time if it is considered prejudicial to the national interest or involves a public utility service, under the Essential Services Ordinance. This ban is regularly renewed every six months with regard to national airline pilots, water supply workers, shipping employees, dock workers, telecommunications, banks and insurance, railways and electricity supply workers. It has been criticised by the ILO.

Three-quarters of union members must agree to a strike, which is unacceptably high by international standards. The government can ban a strike that lasts more than 30 days and refer it to the labour court for adjudication. Workers can be imprisoned for participating in an illegal strike.

The 1974 Special Powers Act is often used by the authorities to detain trade unionists without charge. In 1999, ten trade unionists belonging to the ICFTU-affiliated BJSL, including its President Nashu Miah, were arrested in connection with an industrial dispute at Afil Jute Mill. The issue was non-payment of wages for several months. The unionists were imprisoned for four months until the High Court declared their detention illegal.

On 29 July 1997, the government appointed a five-member Task Force to draft an action plan to curb the “interference of trade unions in the management of the central bank and other banks both in the public and private sectors, and to suggest remedies”. The Task Force reported in February 1998, making a series of recommendations including a ban on trade union activities in Bangladesh Central Bank and in commercial banks for at least three years. After this period unions would be allowed back under certain conditions and with a code of conduct. However, the government was not able to implement the recommendations without changing the law. In 1999, there were reports that the government was indeed considering bringing in new laws to ban unions in the Bangladesh Central Bank.

A tripartite National Labour Law Commission was established in 1992 to review the labour law, and a new draft labour code was drawn up. In 1999 the government again told the ILO that a Review Committee was reviewing the draft.

Export Processing Zones

More than 90,000 workers, 90% of them women, are employed in the country's two export processing zones (EPZs) in Chittagong and Savar (Dhaka). In additional to local investment, investment comes mainly from South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, the US, Britain and Italy, primarily in the textile and apparel, electronics component, and leather industries. Over the eight months to February 1999, US $60 million in new investments was received.

The EPZs are exempt from the Employment of Labour (Standing Orders) Act of 1965, the Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969, and the Factories Act of 1965. Among other things, these laws establish freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively and set occupational safety and health standards. Consequently, trade unions do not exist in the zones. While a small number of workers in the EPZs have set up informal organisations, no collective bargaining takes place.

An NGO study released in December 1999 reported the following practices, among others, in the Chittagong and Dhaka EPZs: sexual harassment and abuse, physical abuse, unpaid overtime work, child labour, non-compliance with minimum wage regulations, lack of information available to workers about their legal rights, and substandard safety conditions.

The Government made a commitment in 1992 to end restrictions on freedom of association and formation of unions by 1997, and to apply all sections of labour law in the EPZs by 2000. This has not been implemented. As a result, in July 1999 the US national trade union centre, the AFL-CIO urged the office of the US Trade Representative to take steps to remove Bangladesh's trade privilege under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP).

This possibility of economic pressure led to some promises of possible improvements in the EPZs. At the beginning of November 1999, there were some press reports that the government had stated it would open up its two EPZs to trade unions. In response, representatives of both local and foreign business protested strongly. Investors said that the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority Act, adopted in 1980, was being contravened. They said that investors would withdraw their capital and there would be no new investments.

The government was then reported to be seeking two years in which to amend the law. In March 2000, the government backtracked, stating that instead of trade unions, “tripartite committees for the welfare of workers” might be set up. It was unclear how workers would be able to elect genuine representatives to such committees, which in any case would not be allowed to take any industrial action in defence of workers' rights.

At the present time eight new EPZs are being created. The number of people working in the zones is expected to rise.

In conclusion, most public sector workers cannot join trade unions at all, while private sector workers face immense legal and practical difficulties in organising. Unions are not protected against interference by employers and there are serious constraints on the right to strike. There are very grave violations of trade union rights in the textiles and apparel, electronics component, and leather industries in the country's export processing zones, which the government is presently expanding. The government at one time promised some measures to improve the situation in the EPZs in response to the possibility of international economic pressure, but has yet to undertake any implementation of even these largely cosmetic measures.

II. Discrimination and Equal Remuneration

Bangladesh ratified ILO Convention No. 111 (1958), Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) in 1972 and ILO Convention No. 100 (1951), Equal Remuneration in 1998.

Women make up ninety per cent of the 1,400,000 employees in the 2,700 factories located mainly in Dhaka, Narayanganj and Chittagong, which export mainly to North America and Europe. These predominantly garment-producing factories account for 73 per cent of total export earnings of Bangladesh.

These workers are generally not given appointment letters as received by other workers. They are denied maternity leave, and are discouraged from marrying and having children. They are often paid below the legal minimum wage (last adjusted in 1994), made to work overtime without pay in bad conditions, and usually work seven days a week, often without holidays. Many workers report that they are kept in lower-wage probationary status long past the statutory limit on the probationary period, thus denying them the higher minimum wage that comes with permanent or regular status.

The workers are frequently locked in. They suffer verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment. Health and safety standards are not respected and there are many fires in the garment establishments. There is often no safe drinking water.

In other sectors, women still occupy only a small fraction of most wage-earning jobs, and hold fewer than 5 percent of government jobs. Many women work as manual labourers on construction projects. Women are employed on a large scale in the electronics, food processing, beverage, and handicraft industries.

There are many reports of discrimination in employment. This is particularly prevalent in the private sector, especially in mills.

Women are often ignorant of their rights because of continued high illiteracy rates and unequal educational opportunities. Literacy rates are approximately 26 percent for women, compared with 49 percent for men. In recent years, female school enrolment has improved and now approximately 50 percent of primary and secondary school students are female.

Religious minorities are disadvantaged in such areas as access to government jobs.

The law provides for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for the disabled. In practice, the disabled face social and economic discrimination.

There is significant discrimination against women in employment, including in export industries such as garments and electronics.

III. Child Labour

Bangladesh has not ratified either ILO Convention No. 138 (1973), the Minimum Age Convention or No. 182 (1999), the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

There is no general law against the employment of children, although some laws prohibit labour by children in certain sectors. The Factories Act of 1965 bars children under the age of 14 from working in factories. The Shops and Establishments Act of 1965 prohibits the employment of children younger than the age of 12 in commercial workplaces. The Employment of Children Act of 1938 prohibits the employment of children under the age of 15 in the railways or in goods' handling within ports.

The government made universal primary education between the ages of 6 and 10 compulsory in 1991. According to Education Ministry figures, approximately 86 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 10 years are enrolled in school (usually only three hours per day). Attendance rates drop steadily with age, and only about half of all children complete school up to the age of 10.

In practice, enforcement of even the existing legislation is inadequate. Child labour is a serious problem, often from a very young age, in many forms of economic activities. According to a 1996 labour force survey by the government, the country had 6.3 million working children between the ages of 5 and 14 years who work for pay and are not enrolled in school. This is equivalent to about 12% of the total labour force of over 51 million workers. About 1.9 million working children are below the age of 10. In addition to remunerated employment, children often work alongside other family members in small-scale and subsistence agriculture.

UNICEF and ILO surveys indicate that, of children 6 to 17 years of age, 21 percent of boys and 4 percent of girls work in paid employment. Hours usually are long and the pay low, and the conditions sometimes are hazardous. Children pull rickshaws, break bricks at construction sites, engage in portering at markets, and work in the shrimp industry. Many children work in the beedi (hand-rolled cigarette) industry. Children under 18 years sometimes work in hazardous circumstances in the leather industry. There is much sexual abuse of child workers by their employers, including in the garments sector.

There is widespread presence of what is defined under the new ILO Convention No. 182 as the worst forms of child labour. In addition to the hazardous forms of employment noted above, abuse of child workers is common, particularly in domestic service and prostitution. Estimates of the number of child prostitutes range from 10,000 to 29,000. Some children also are trafficked to the Middle East to be used as camel jockeys.

Since 1995, Bangladesh has been working with the ILO's International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). In July 1995 a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), UNICEF and the ILO/IPEC to eliminate child labour in the garment sector by October 31, 1996. Some 10,000 former child labourers were enrolled in schools under a programme called “earn and learn” financed by BGMEA, ILO and UNICEF, receiving a small monthly allowance to help replace their lost income, while ILO-managed inspection teams undertook follow-up inspections of factories.

About 8 per cent of factories inspected in October 1996 had at least one or two child labourers and about 1 percent of the factories had more than this amount. A BGMEA arbitration committee was set up to impose fines on those factories, but it is ineffective. According to informed sources, the BGMEA has taken no punitive action against factory owners employing child labour or against those factories which have turned away factory inspection teams.

There are reports that, despite the ILO/UNICEF/BGMEA monitoring programme, garment employers are still using child labour and have become more sophisticated in hiding under-age workers from the eyes of monitors visiting the factories. A 1999 survey of 53 EPZ factories by a researcher from Dacca University found that recruitment of children was occurring even in the most modern factories in the country. The continuing prevalence of child labour in the sector points to the need for factory inspections to be combined with the guarantee of the right to form trade unions to defend workers' rights in the factories.

There are over six million child labourers in Bangladesh, including in export sectors like garments and leather production.

IV. Forced Labour

In 1972, Bangladesh ratified both ILO Convention No. 29 (1930), the Forced Labour Convention and ILO Convention No. 105 (1957), the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention.

The Constitution prohibits forced labour and the Factories Act and Shops and Establishments Act, both passed in 1965, established inspection mechanisms to enforce laws against forced labour. However, these laws are rarely enforced.

While there is no evidence of large-scale bonded labour, numerous domestic servants, including many children, work in conditions that resemble servitude and many suffer physical abuse, sometimes resulting in death.

There is extensive trafficking in women and children for the purpose of forced prostitution within the country and to other countries in Asia. People who buy children are rarely prosecuted.

While bonded labour in Bangladesh does not appear to be widespread, there is substantial abuse of domestic workers and trafficking in women and children for the purpose of forced prostitution.


1. Extensive and far-reaching reforms are needed to Bangladesh's laws and practice in order to achieve respect for core labour standards.

2. Existing laws relating to minimum wages, hours of work and holidays must be implemented in full.

3. The law of Bangladesh must be extensively amended to provide all workers with the right to join trade unions and engage in collective bargaining, so that freedom of association is extended to all public servants, teachers and nurses, professional and managerial staff in the public and state sector, workers on government farms or co-operatives, security personnel, and workers at the Rural Electrification Board, Security Printing Press and Ordnance Factories.

4. Union registration requirements need extensive reforms to bring them in line with the international labour standards on this matter. This is especially urgent in the garments factories where registration has been extremely difficult for the past several years. National trade unions should be permitted to be registered.

5. The government must establish legal rights to non-discrimination against trade union members, officers or leaders. The authorities must establish and implement effective penalties against violence by employers and crack down on collusion by local authorities and police with employers. Similarly, the Labour Court should be given adequate resources to handle its case-load expeditiously and its decisions must be scrutinised to identify and eliminate corrupt interventions by employers.

6. The right to strike and the Essential Services Ordinance must be amended to bring them into line with international standards.

7. The country's export processing zones (EPZs) must be brought within the scope of the Employment of Labour (Standing Orders) Act of 1965, the Industrial Relations Ordinance of 1969 and the Factories Act of 1965. This would fulfil, belatedly, the government's 1992 commitment to end restrictions on freedom of association and formation of unions by 1997, and to apply all sections of labour law in the EPZs by 2000.

8. The government of Bangladesh should undertake various measures to tackle discrimination effectively, particularly in the export processing zones where 90% of the workers are women.

9. The government must ratify ILO Convention No. 138 and Convention No. 182. The law must provide for a minimum age for employment of at least 14, in line with the provisions of Convention No. 138. The low school enrolment rate and the scale of child labour in Bangladesh indicate the need for the government to channel more resources into education. Regular factory inspections should be instituted. Measures are needed to stop the worst forms of child labour including prostitution, domestic servitude and camel jockeying as an absolute priority.

10. The government must end forced labour through enforcement of the Factories Act and Shops and Establishments Act; measures to end servitude in domestic service; and strong penalties against those who engage in trafficking of women or children.

11. In line with the commitments accepted by Bangladesh at the Singapore WTO Ministerial Conference and its obligations as a member of the ILO, the government of Bangladesh should therefore provide regular reports to the WTO and the ILO on its legislative changes and implementation programmes with regard to all the core labour standards.

12. The WTO should draw to the attention of the authorities of Bangladesh the commitments they undertook to observe core labour standards at the Singapore and Geneva WTO Ministerial Conferences. The WTO should request the ILO to intensify its work with the government of Bangladesh in these areas and provide a report to the WTO General Council on the occasion of the next trade policy review.


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