Workers’ condition in Bangladesh & thinking beyond the box

Published : Tuesday, 7 May, 2019 at 12:00 AM
We have just observed International Workers’ Day or World Labour Day. This day is observed throughout the world on May 1 every year to recognize the hard labour of the millions of workers around the world whose sweats have built everything that we enjoy in our everyday life. This day is supposed to focus on the issues and rights of these workers to safeguard their lives and futures.

But unfortunately, though we observe this day every year, we are yet to see any significant improvement in the conditions of these workers especially in Bangladesh. We are still bound in the sphere of salary and wages while we are yet to address the humanitarian grounds as per the utmost importance that we require to. Hence, there are many areas that we need to put our focus on if we really wish to improve the condition of our workers and that requires looking beyond the issues of salary and wages.

Different sectors of Bangladesh are contributing highly in creating employment in Bangladesh. Some generate merit-based employment while some generate labour-based employment. Other than agriculture, readymade garments (RMG) sector is creating the largest number of jobs which mostly contains labour-based employment. This sector has largely contributed in the development of women, we must agree and thousands of women come from different parts of Bangladesh to work in the garments factories that were previously unemployed or were employed as household workers with low pay and low dignity. We cannot deny the fact that, the RMG sector has opened the doors for millions of possible unemployed youths both men and women.

In Bangladesh, more than 3.5 million workers in over 4,800 garment factories produce clothing goods for export to the global market, principally Europe and North America. The Bangladeshi garment industry generates 80 per cent of the country’s total export revenue. However, the wealth generated by this sector has led to few improvements in the lives of garment workers, 85 per cent of whom are women. The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh earn little more than the minimum wage, far below what is considered a living wage, which would be the minimum, required to provide a family with shelter, food and education in the face of underlying inflation throughout the country. 

As well as earning a minute allowance, Bangladeshi factory workers face horrendous conditions. Many are forced to work 14-16 hours per day seven days a week, with some workers finishing at 3am only to start again the same morning at 7.30am. On top of this, workers face unsafe, cramped and hazardous conditions which often lead to work injuries and factory fires.

Many workers have died and several thousands were wounded in many major factory fires during the last two decade. Sexual harassment and discrimination is widespread and many women workers have reported that the right to maternity leave is not upheld by employers. Factory management also takes steps to prevent the formation of trade unions, a right protected under the Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining ILO Conventions, which Bangladesh ratified in 1972.

Following the Tazreen Fashions fire and Rana Plaza collapse International Labor Organization (ILO) has placed considerable emphasis on enhancing safety and working conditions in the ready-made garment sector. Major initiatives are being undertaken to inspect RMG factories for structural and fire safety. The capacity of the Labour Inspectorate and the Fire Service and Civil Defence Department is being significantly enhanced. Levels of coordination and collaboration are also being built so that these bodies are able to take on an effective regulatory oversight role in the upcoming years once external support ends.

Occupational safety and health remains an issue with support being provided to implementing the National Occupational Safety Health (OSH) policy. Employers and workers organizations are taking an active role in training mid-level managers, supervisors and trade union leaders on occupational health issues. Meanwhile, at factory level the Better Work programme is helping to set up structures boosting worker-management relations so that workers play a role in improving their workplace conditions. 

Despite several major workplace incidents involving the lives of the workers, regretfully the movements of the workers mostly focus on the issues of wages only. The recent demand is to set the minimum wage at Tk.16,000 and that demand is yet to be met cent per cent. But except for the wage, the workers of Bangladesh are mostly not found in strong movement in demand of their workplace safety or inequality issues. The humanitarian grounds are still not of great importance to them and that is a reality. 

Even after the tragic Rana Plaza incident, the workers were not forcing for justice for a long time and the victims are yet to receive justice. Improvement of working condition, compliance and safety still remains a second priority to the workers of Bangladesh. These issues are only remembered on days like May Day and are quickly forgotten. Only wages cannot improve our lives as if we do not consider the humanitarian issues, it proves that we are not valuing ourselves.

Unfortunately the business condition and laws in Bangladesh are not worker-friendly to a certain extent. We must agree that we compete in the world market based on availability of cheap labour. It is true for different industries and sectors of Bangladesh. Considering the practices of the developed world, the labour is very cheap in our country which gives us a competitive edge and helped us capture a good market especially in the RMG sector throughout the world.

The boom of RMG sector has created a lot of employment which is significantly important for the development of country’s economy. Behind the uprising of RMG sectors, we highly recognize the efforts of the millions of workers but we seldom remember the efforts of the entrepreneurs or owners of these industries and regretfully they are the ones who face all the turmoil being the drivers of this sector.

As like as any business, the industry owners also face difficult times and during those times, the workers put extra pressures on the owners for salary and wages. Our laws also assist the workers and the law enforcers also put extra pressure on the owners. These owners regularly pay taxes to the government but in return, they do not get any support from the government in tough times.

In developed and many developing countries, the government supports an industry to sustain in adverse situation but that is not the case in Bangladesh. Hence, sometimes, due to all the pressures from different stakeholders, the industry owners have to close down their business and as a result many workers lose their jobs. The factory owners who are regular taxpayers should receive strong support from the government in tough times as by creating employment, they are directly contributing to the welfare of the country and its economy.

There are around 2 million government employees and around 63 million private sector employees in Bangladesh. Moreover, approximately 3 million people are unemployed which is over 4 per cent of the total workforce. Most of the private sector employees pay their taxes whenever applicable but there is no benefit assured by the government for them. All the benefits seem to be due for the public sector employees.

During the last few years, the salary was increased multiple times for the government employees to eliminate disparity between their income and expenditure but for the private sector employees, only the expenses went up. There are several service benefits for the public sector employees but that is almost nil for most of the private sector employees. Moreover, job security is a concept only associated with the public sector jobs now-a-days.

As we are taxpayers being a private sector employee, we can ask for some benefits from the government which we are deprived of till now. There are no rules or regulations to ensure the rights of private sector employees of Bangladesh though it is the greatest source of employment generation in our country. The government should immediately focus on this area to safeguard the future of Bangladesh.

We are moving technologically ahead and are expected to adopt technological advancement in different areas as we go along with modernization. But we must remember being an overpopulated country that, modernization should not eliminate jobs and increase the size of unemployed workforce. Creating and securing jobs must be the priority at all aspects of our economic movement. The government should train the workforce of Bangladesh to adopt technology so that they can be competitive both in local and foreign market. It is a lengthy process and the goal cannot be achieved overnight but the process should be started with a good plan on hand.

Uplifting humane factors in workplace, supporting the owners to sustain industries, shifting focus on private sectors, adopting modernization to create employment–all these should be the priority of the government to improve and safeguard the lives of millions of workers in Bangladesh. The current government under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made remarkable advancement in different areas and hopefully these issues can also be addressed. We hope, if we can prioritize the mentioned factors, the progress of Bangladesh in the upcoming years will be quite astonishing which all Bangladeshis desire.

The writer is chief editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), editor at Kishore Bangla and vice-chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)

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