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Bangladesh Passes Historic Labor Law

On July 15th, Bangladeshi parliament passed a newly amended labor law that many are praising as a historic step towards the gradual improvement of its widely criticized working conditions.

Bangladesh’s Secretary of Labor, Mikail Shiper, called the new legislation “world class,” citing the overhaul of eighty-seven provisions contained within the 2006 labor law. The bill is known as the Bangladesh Labour Bill, 2013.

Shiper described the bill as a triumph of bi-partisan cooperation. “This is a landmark legislation drawn up after extensive consultations with all stakeholders including workers, factory owners, retailers, the ILO [International Labour Organization] and development partners. All obstacles to freedom of association have now been removed,” he said.

The centerpiece of the new law is the freedom of factory workers to form trade unions without the prior consent of factory owners. The previous labor law authorized owners to block unionization at will, making worker organization all but impossible. Also, any factory that sells products within Bangladesh is now obligated to contribute 5 percent of its profits to a general welfare fund for workers.

Still, many labor activists expressed frustration that the new law was toothless. Abul Kalam Muhammed Nasim, senior legal counsel at the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in Dhaka, complained, “Although union members no longer have to be vetted by owners, the directorate of labor still has wide discretionary powers. In practice, that means owners may be able to block unions.”

Nasim also protested that the mandatory contribution to a workers’ fund only applies to fully export-oriented factories. He said, “The exemption means that garment factories, which are mostly export-oriented, won’t have to contribute 5 percent of their profits. It’s easy to see where the garment owners’ association has influenced the government.”

The vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Reaz Bin Mahmood, defended the amendment: “We fully support the need for labor reform,” he said. “We’ve worked with the government, the retailers and others to hammer out this law. We envision an industry where labor rights are respected and everyone acts responsibly for the welfare of the industry.”