After a week since the negative US review came over the GSP issue in Bangladesh, the cabinet yesterday approved a draft law which would pave the way for Bangladesh Export Processing Zone workers to unionize. The demand for freedom of association have been a burning issue for labor rights groups and sympathizers, and played a major role in the GSP (General system of preference) denied to Bangladesh from the United States.
On June 27, 2013, the United States suspend Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), citing serious shortcomings in workplace safety and labor rights. The US presented 16 conditions for reform in the garment sector, which unless met would prevent Bangladesh from enjoying its GSP facility. The Bangladeshi government has since then started reforming the garment sector based on those conditions (as well as pressure from European retailers and right groups).
The Current review said, in the words of United States Trade Representative Michael Froman: “We are seeing some improvements that move us closer to our shared goal of protecting workers from another workplace tragedy such as the April 2013, “However, we remain concerned about the large number of factories that have yet to be inspected, the lack of progress on needed labor law reforms, and continuing reports of harassment of and violence against labor activists who are attempting to exercise their rights.”
“A new law was needed as the EPZ workers were out of the jurisdiction of the labor law as they are paid higher salary and in dollars, and get some special facilities,” Cabinet Secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told reporters after the cabinet meeting. “The draft was prepared in consultation with all the stake holders, including the owners of the industries located at the EPZ.and so there should be no objection or interference on the part of the owners regarding the formation of association since they were also consulted before preparing the draft.
As per the proposed law, at least 30 percent workers of a factory within an export processing zone will have to apply for registration to form a worker union.
After registration with the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (Bepza), the association’s executive committee will be elected for one year. One candidate or a panel will need at least 50 percent votes to be declared a winner and there will be a fresh election in case of fewer votes.
Currently the EPZ Workers’ Association and Industrial Relations Act 2009 does not allow trade unions, a term not mentioned also in the draft approved by the cabinet.
According to discussions and press briefings by Cabinet members involved in creating the draft law, the existing workers’ welfare associations in the export processing zones will act like trade unions under the proposed Bangladesh EPZ Labour Act 2014.
The proposed law was drafted in line with the Labor Act 2006 (amended in 2013). The draft was prepared by the Cabinet Committee formed in the Prime Minister’s Office.