Freedom of association in the Bangladeshi garment industry: A policy schizophrenia in labour regulation

AuthorMia Mahmudur RAHIM, Sk Samidul ISLAM
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/ilr.12152
Publication Date01 Sep 2020
Copyright © The authors 2020
Journal compilation © International Labour Organization 2020
International Labour Review, Vol. 159 (2020), No. 3
Freedom of association in the
Bangladeshi garment industry:
A policy schizophrenia
in labour regulation
Mia Mahmudur RAHIM* and Sk Samidul ISLAM**
Abstract. The right to freedom of association is fundamental for the establish-
ment of labour unionism as an institution. While the Government of Bangladesh
requires enabling legal provisions for unionization in its garment industry, regu-
lation to ensure the right to freedom of association has proved ineective in up-
holding labour unionism. This article highlights the need for legislation capable
of drawing on the complementary skills and resources of the Government, factory
owners, labour unions and global brands to secure a sustained commitment and
contribution towards the socio-economic and political dimensions of labour rela-
tions in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry.
Keywords: freedom of association, labour rights, trade unionism, ready-made
garment industry, labour regulation, Bangladesh, labour-intensive countries.
1. Introduction
Since the fateful Rana Plaza collapse in 2013,1 the Government of Bangladesh,
factory owners, international organizations and global brands have launched
several programmes to improve workers’ “well-being” (Croucher et al., 2019;
Donaghey and Reinecke, 2018). However, other than ensuring workplace safety
in a handful of factories, these programmes have done little to help develop
basic labour institutions, such as labour unions, in the Bangladeshi ready-made
garment (RMG) industry (Khan and Wichterich, 2015; Sinkovics, Hoque and
Sinkovics, 2016; Zajak, 2017). This industry contributes approximately 80 per cent
of export earnings, with a workforce of 4 million in 5,00 0 factories (ILO, 2016).
Only 2–10 per cent of these factories have registered unions, and of these
*School of Law at the University of New England, email: miamahmud@gmail.com (correspond-
ing author). **Bangladesh Judicial Service, email: sksami2003@gmail.com.
Responsibility for opinions expressed in signed articles rests solely with their authors, and
publication does not constitute an endorsement by the ILO.
1 Rana Plaza was a garment factory building in Bangladesh that collapsed on 24 April 2013.
It was the most devastating industrial accident in the country’s history, killing 1,134 people and
injuring thousands more. For further details, see Gomes (2013) and Rahim (2017).
International Labour Review
424
registered unions, one in ten is active, and one in ve has been created by the
factory’s owners (ITUC, 2017; Moazzem, Ahmed and Islam, 2015).
As in other labour-intensive developing countries, the dire labour situ-
ation in the Bangladeshi RMG industry is the outcome of a market-controlled
labour regime where market conditions, even if they contravene basic labour
rights, control labour relationships.2 Under this market regime, Bangladeshi
workers have been put in a weak bargaining position, not only by the ever-
increasing unemployment rate, but also by the large number of young, female
workers, and the lack of alternative sources of income (Reinecke and Donaghey,
2015). In this setting, active participation in a labour union is risky, with
workers facing a potential loss of employment, prolonged unemployment and
underemployment (Anner, 2015). Such conditions enable employers and the
Government alike to control the exercise of freedom of association. RMG factory
owners are typically self-interested and have no regard for workers’ freedom of
association (Belal and Roberts, 2010; Anisul Huq, Stevenson and Zorzini, 2014),
actively blocking the formation of formal labour unions.3 Thus, while legal pro-
tection of the right to freedom of association and its exercise is crucial for the
unorganized working class, the Government’s stance on protecting freedom of
association in this industry remains vague (Locke, 2016; E. Hossain, 2013a and
2013b; F. Hossain, 2013). It appears that the Government is passive towards
unionization, always putting o moves to take adequate measures to control
the surge of “yellow unions”, which factory owners create in order to dilute the
capacity of unions.4 A recent amendment to the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 ,
fails to provide clear and compelling provisions regarding unionization. This Act
and the Bangladesh Labour Act Implementing Rules, 2015, contain many “ex-
cessive” and largely “unreasonable” provisions, moreover providing insucient
protection for the freedom of association of industrial workers. The Government
urgently needs to reform the regulatory framework on labour rights, increase
penalties for non-compliance, and harness resources from other agencies. This
article delves into these issues, seeking to provide an outline on how to develop
legal regulation for freedom of association in Bangladesh, with a focus on pro-
tecting this freedom in the country’s RMG industry, the second-largest garment
supply industry in the world (Fontana, 2017).
2 Anner divides the regulation of labour markets into: (a) authoritarian state labour control
regimes; (b) market labour control regimes; and (c) employer labour control regimes, putting the
labour market in Bangladesh under the “market labour control regime” (2015, p. 17). In general,
in this regime, “the market exercises its coercive power by disciplining workers to accept poor
working conditions under the threat of being easily replaceable” (Zajak, 2017, p. 1011). The labour
force in this country increased from 56.1 million in 2010 to 66.64 million in 2017, while the un-
employment rate was 3.37 per cent in 2010 and 4.37 per cent in 2017. For further details, see Anner
(2015) and Zajak (2017).
3 Examples of this strategy include the use of physical torture, short-term wage increases,
bonuses or overtime rates, and buying o union leaders by oering them bribes or promotions in
the workplace. For details, see ILO (2015a), Labowitz and Baumann-Pauly (2015), Welford and Frost
(2006) and Umar (200 4).
4 These unions, including workers’ committees backed by factory owners, do not receive ad-
equate support from workers. Hence their role in ensuring workers’ safety and well-being is not
only questionable but also negligible. For a detailed study on this matter, see Khan and Wichterich
(2015).

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