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Bangladesh to Grant Workers in EPZs Right to Unionize

Bangladesh announced Monday that it has approved a draft law protecting Export Processing Zone (EPZ) workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, just days after the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) statement claiming the South Asian nation needs to do more to improve worker’s rights and safety.

Cabinet Secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told reporters after the cabinet meeting that the proposed law was drafted with all stakeholders, including factory owners in the EPZs.

Currently, workers in Bangladesh’s eight EPZs aren’t afforded the same rights to form trade unions as workers in other parts of the country. The EPZs were developed to stimulate economic growth in Bangladesh and to provide designated areas where potential investors could enjoy fiscal incentives like tax exemptions, and non-fiscal incentives like 100 percent foreign ownership, according to the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA). Brands like Nike, H&M, Walmart and Gap are currently producing goods in Bangladesh EPZs, which operate more than 400 industrial units.

Bangladesh eased its trade union laws following the Rana Plaza tragedy last year to allow garment workers to form trade unions without permission from factory owners, but EPZ factories were exempt from the labor law changes.

According to Bangladesh’s The Daily Star, under the proposed Bangladesh EPZ Labour Act 2014, factory workers within an EPZ will be able to apply for registration to form worker’s welfare associations, which will act like trade unions as per the law. EPZ factory workers will elect welfare union leaders each year.

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The law also includes policies and procedures for worker recruitment, job conditions, facilities during maternity, workplace environment, work hours, wages, and labor court formation.

USTR Michael Froman said Wednesday that Bangladesh needed to do better to address the worker’s rights and safety issues that led President Obama to suspend its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade benefits in 2013. Following the suspension, the U.S. provided Bangladesh with an Action Plan detailing necessary actions that had to be taken before it would consider reinstating the country’s trade privileges.

The statement came following a GSP Action Plan review and the USTR noted that while Bangladesh has made progress on some of the plan’s points, it failed to put in place labor law reforms that would ensure equal rights for workers in EPZs.

State Minister for Labour and Employment Mujibul Haque Chunnu told The Daily Star, “The law will improve the country’s image worldwide. Besides, it will have a positive impact on trade and investment.”