When I visited Bangladesh in 2014, one year after Rana Plaza collapsed, hope was blowing through the air. Hope, that after so many years of repression against trade unions, positive development was possible.
An amendment in the 2006 labour law in 2013 enabled registration of trade unions. A factory owner of a middle sized garment factory clearly listed for me the advantages of an active trade union among his workers: complaints of the workers are immediately outspoken, so they can be dealt with, and turnover of workers has reduced. Workers themselves also expressed to me their satisfaction with their union.
Trade union registration hindered
One year later, some positive signs are still there, but more and more obstacles arise that seriously hamper trade union development. Since last year, some 300 new trade unions in general are registered, most of them in the garment sector. By actively organising in the factories, the organisers of all affiliates of IndustriALL managed to get 100 new unions registered. Quite an achievement, considering the fact that they are often not allowed to enter into the factory, especially in the larger ones above 500 workers. But with the terrible images of Rana Plaza withering away, and international pressure diminishing, the government of Bangladesh increases the bureaucratic obstacles to register new trade unions. The rejection rate for new trade union registration in 2014 was 31%, and has increased in the first three months of 2015 to 61%. Unofficially only 5 new unions are permitted for registration per month. A drop in the ocean of 5000 official garment factories.
Illegal closures to avoid unionization
Also employers have their means to hinder trade union registration. After intimidation, violence and firing trade union leaders, the ultimate way is to close down factories. So, although the number of 300 new trade unions seems impressive, the number of active unions is far less. Since 2014, 65 unions have been forced to stop their activities: 36 because the trade union leaders were fired and 31 because the factory closed down.
Employers explain the closure of factories pointing at the decreasing orders because of compliance issues after the Rana Plaza collapse, and increasing exchange rates of the Bangladeshi Taka against the Euro, but trade unions have another opinion. On the 21st of March 2015, garment workers of 5 factories organized a sit-in in front of the employers association BGMEA to protest against the closure of their factories. In all these 5 factories trade unions recently have been registered, or are in the process of registration. The protest was organized by IndustriALL affiliate the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), who considers the closure illegal and an attempt to crush the union. The management of the 5 factories did not provide any compensation for the outstanding wages and overtime payment. With their protest the workers and leaders urged the government and the BGMEA to take immediate the necessary steps to reopen these 5 factories, to take care of the payment of outstanding wages and to stop all actions against registration of unions.
Occupational Health and Safety Committees
To improve the building and fire safety in the factories, the Bangladesh ACCORD was signed by 200 brands and the Global Union Federation IndustriALL. As almost all inspections of the buildings have been finalized so far, the second phase has started, in which improvements and reconstructions have to begin for unsafe declared buildings. Another important element is the formation of Occupational Health and Safety committees. These OSH committees are stipulated in the 2013 amendment of the 2006 labour law, but no definite rulings have yet been declared, postponing the actual formation of the OSH committees.
According to us, it is of the utmost importance that these committees are installed, and at the same time the registration of trade unions at firm level is no longer hindered by bureaucratic obstacles or counteracted by actions of employers.