Notable amendments to labour laws in Bangladesh that were lacking in specificity, clarity, and context could be our first steps towards workers’ rights recognition.
Bangladesh is a labour-intensive country with 58.2% of people working and contributing to the economy in some form or another, be it its ready-made garment industry or its internationally recognised labour export sector. It has a robust youth population, with 40% of it falling between the ages of 15-24. As such, Bangladesh adds at least 2 million youth to its workforce each year. In a country like this, the laws governing the activities of the labour force should take priority and precedence over everything else. In September 2022, the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 was amended, eight years after its last amendment.
The importance of labour law compliance in Bangladesh has increased since the Labour Law Act was initiated in 2006 and Labour Rules in 2015. Over the years, it has been amended a number of times such as in 2013 and 2018, owing to the dynamic well-being needs and requirements of the working class. Despite such frequent revisions, Bangladeshi labour laws have been under severe scrutiny from international organisations and other regulatory groups.
The government of Bangladesh (GoB), in compliance with the assurance given to the International Labour Law (ILO), came out with the first set of amendments to Labour Rules 2015. While the amendments have largely benefited the employees, the changes are not solely focused on workers’ rights this time. Instead, they have touched upon topics which were in discussion ever since Labour Rules 2015 was implemented, such as trade unions, rights of employees under third-party contractors, classification of permanent work, incorporation of digital labour registrar, timelines of misconduct investigation procedures and the representative of an accused employee. The Act also now covers more workers, including those on water, so they can enjoy the rights and protection provided by it too. Other categories of workers such as those in the tea industry have gained added benefits – for example, they not only get monetary benefits but can now also retain other benefits such as their existing leisure facilities.
Most of these changes were welcomed as plenty of the previous rules were unclear and murky, to say the least. For instance, for a very long time, the rights of employees employed under third-party contractors were unclear and created legal controversies between employers and such employees. These controversies arose especially when the workers claimed to be deprived of the same rights as direct employees, including but not restricted to equal pay and other financial facilities. Even if these employees are employed by third-party contractors, more often than not, they would end up suing direct companies, causing them unexpected inconvenience and incurrence of costs. The newly amended rules 4 and 5 state that third-party contractors must pay the employees they employ the same amount that is earned by direct company employees. In addition to that, employers that do not already have a running gratuity scheme must now form a ‘Workers’ Social Security Fund’ which would provide third-party employees with the same facilities as a gratuity scheme does.
Another important rule the amended Act touches upon is that of permanent work. The renewed rule states that depending on the sort of work it is, any work that is conducted in a workplace that continues beyond six months is to be considered permanent work. This amendment is expected to significantly change the nature of what is currently known as ‘contractual work’. Previously employers could go on for more than six months even if the nature of the work seemed permanent. However, now, contractual work can only be offered for tasks that are of temporary nature or project-based, according to the interpretation of the labour laws.
Other amendments include allowing participative committees to choose representatives for employees facing charges of misconduct if the employee is unable to do so within the stipulated time. Additionally, the time allotted for the investigation would now be 60 days, from the time a show-cause notice is served, to the time judgement is passed, to make the investigation tighter.
Certain amendments that guarantee to make workplaces better for workers are those that address women. Rule number 16, for instance, fixes the maternity benefit calculation and calculates the wage rate divided by 26, yielding an increased benefit. To expound, a woman can avail of maternity leave for at least 8 weeks after the birth of her child, even if she has not disclosed her pregnancy before delivery. The previous Act was largely unclear about what should happen in such a case but this amendment has made things more transparent – the woman worker can now enjoy 8 weeks of paid leave in addition to her other benefits. The rule is not valid in case the woman suffers a miscarriage but even then, she would be allowed sick leaves owing to her health whenever she requires it.
Another immensely important amendment that has come into play is one concerning the behaviour of women in the workplace (rule 88). This rule redefines sexual harassment in the context of the workplace. So far, all the case laws regarding this matter have been interpreted based on judicial precedent, and hence, women would always be apprehensive as to which side the scales would tip. However, with women occupying all sorts of positions, be it in corporations or multinationals, or as the driving force behind the RMG sector, this particular rule was crucial and has taken a long time coming.
Men and women in larger industries work in poor conditions and deserve a better work environment. To that effect, the amended Act now issues that medium-sized employers, employing a minimum of 25 people must also provide adequately spacious lunchrooms to employees. This was previously only a requirement for establishments with 50 or more workers. Even if the lunchrooms have replaced a space where employees can rest during the day, it is undeniably a better amenity. What makes this change all the more significant is that it adds to the quality of life for workers, where previous benefits have been more inclined towards financials.
Along the same lines, workers’ families also stand to benefit more now, in the instance of the worker’s death while in employment. Previously, compensation would be given by the employer to the labour court and the employer would be absolved of all responsibility for the same thereafter. Now, for the death of a worker, or in the instance that a worker is missing, the employer must directly pay the nominee or legal heir of the said worker. In case this is not possible, the benefit would then go to a labour welfare organisation where it is to stay for a total of 10 years or until such time as a claimant arrives. In case there is no claimant within a decade, the money would be used for the needs of the other members of the organisation. This law makes it possible for the benefit to go directly to the workers’ families instead of them having to go through the hassle of getting it from the labour court, or at least for it to be used for the benefit of other workers than simply lying in labour court. Other amendments for the benefit of employees include making it easier for workers to join trade unions and making the process less expensive.
Employers have also benefitted from some of these amendments, such as the fact that workers can now be called into work on any major holiday, with only one physical substitute day by way of compensation and 2 days in cash benefits. Previously, 3 compensation days would have to be given by the employer. Even if this amendment helps mostly the employers, it does not leave employees in the lurch either.
The labour rules have received their first upgrade in eight years and the committee has taken some significant gaps and oversights into consideration. These reforms have brought much clarity towards the laws of the workplace.
Bangladesh is a growing economy and there is much more that must be done to ensure that the large number of workers it employs in all of its sectors thrive and give back to the economy in the best possible way. As such, keeping them in good spirits and doling out motivation to them is a welcome gesture and one that these amendments in labour law have provided. While these amendments have not completely smoothened out all the kinks, it is a first, positive step towards the kind of work environment that these employees deserve and should receive.