May Day and workers' rights in Bangladesh

Editorial, The New Nation, 30 April 2004, 13:20

THE country is observing today the historic May Day in memory of the workers who gave their lives 118 years ago in the United States on this day at Chicago's Hay Market to establish their right of limited hours of work. Workers' rights in different phases and in different areas have been established, secured and promoted worldwide ever since. But working people in the world trace their inspiration to that unique struggle by the Chicago workers that heralded the new age where employers were forced to recognise for the first time that their workers were human beings and had basic rights which must be respected and enforced.

In the context of Bangladesh, one can say that the country is not too poorly served by labour laws and their regulations on the employers. Trade union practices providing collective bargaining of workers with their employers are generally allowed in the industries and services here. Labour courts in Bangladesh promote and protect workers' rights and enforce laws such as compensation to be paid to workers by employers for the breach of labour laws on their part. Bangladesh is a signatory nation associated to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and remains committed on the whole to ILO policies. However, trade union practices in Bangladesh seem to be in existence in the country's older industries and services with new ones-particularly the export oriented garments industries-remaining largely unserved by trade unions. But there are also powerful arguments in favour of such exemptions. The garments industries could never have come to their present number or employ the record number of workers as they do, if they were burdened by demands from workers and lost their competitiveness as a result. The example of the garments industries also demonstrates that it should be a prudent course for eligible workers in this country to first find employment in sectors like the garments industries than to restrict the flourishment of such emerging work opportunities by attempting to introduce trade unions in them too early in the day.

It should be advantageous for workers to put less emphasis first on orthodox trade union practices and accept less regulation on the employers so that they feel encouraged to expand business activities. This should maximise employment creation which should go in the favour of unemployed workers when unemployment is a huge problem in Bangladesh. More employment and some income should be a better choice for the country's workforce with its vast number of unemployed than no employment and no income from too much of trade unionism. Thus, there is a need for responsible trade unionism in the country if there exists a genuine interest among workers' leaders to best advance the longer term interests of their followers. Of course, it is not meant that pressure for better looking after the welfare needs of workers ought not to be there when the new enterprises graduate into stronger entities and, thus, become able to smoothly accommodate reasonable demands from their workers.

Many of the country's garments industries, for instance, would not lose their competitiveness or experience any major reduction in their profits or the control over their workers by allowing the workers certain basic rights, such as a weekly holiday, casual leave, a bearable increase in their wages and safe conditions of work in the factories.

From the government's side, the role expected most is imparting of training and education free of cost to workers. The same should increase their productivity and skills which would be invaluable assets in the work places. Governments in many countries play the desired role of training and educating as many workers as possible and look upon government spending on these areas as long term investment on economic growth. The Government in Bangladesh needs to adopt and pursue vigorously similar policies.