Party’s interest more important to union leaders than workers’ rights
Nazrul Islam, NewAge, May 1, 2009
Opportunism, corruption, undue political interference, workers’ disunity and the ideological divide between the leaders have stalled the trade union movement in Bangladesh for decades, which has allowed the workers’ rights to be trampled across the country, said analysts and activists.
The absence of constructive unionism has imperilled the workers in both formal and informal sectors as most industrial workers have been deprived of the right to form trade unions.
They lack the basic rights of a national minimum wage, appropriate working atmosphere, safety, health facilities, leave and mechanism for dispute settlement.
Many of them are forced to work in risky circumstances and labour overtime without pay, admitted the union leaders who blamed the successive governments for being indifferent to workers’ causes and rights.
‘Wholesale privatisation of state-owned industries in line with international lender’s prescriptions has increased disunity among the labours,’ said Wajedul Islam Khan, the general secretary of the Bangladesh Trade Union Centre.
He believes that the trade union movement is passing through a transitional stage now. ‘The bad times will go someday,’ he said hopefully.
According to statistics, farm labourers constitute more than 40 per cent of the total population of the country, but they are not recognised as formal workers. They have neither fixed wages nor the assurance of employment throughout the year. They remain unemployed for nearly six months in a year and have to depend on the government’s so-called social security net for survival.
Workers in the construction sector, which involves many people due to its backward linkage, are also in the same disarray. Their workplaces are still considered to be death traps and the frequency of accidents is unacceptably high.
In the garments sector, which earns the lion’s share of the country’s foreign exchange, workers have hardly any right to form unions. More than two million workers, mostly women, get the lowest ages in the world and cannot even buy enough food. Moreover they have to work in dangerous conditions since most factories do not take even the most basic safety measures. Their ruthless exploitation has sometimes led to violent unrest, which the unrepentant factory owners term ‘a conspiracy’ against the sector.
The scenario in other industrial sectors is more or less similar although there are some 6,777 registered trade unions with 21,12,929 members working in various sectors across Bangladesh. This may be due to the political affiliation of the unions with the Awami League and the BNP, the two major political parties. The union leaders, in order to toe the line of their parties, neglect the rights and problems of the workers whom they are supposed to protect. Most of them are too busy enriching themselves to do any work for the unions.
The country’s political leaders do not seem to realise that an active and constructive role played by trade unions is good for industrial growth.
‘Industrial unrest would have been lessened if there were constructive bargaining agents free of political influence,’ said economist Zaid Bakht. In other countries, trade unions promote better management of industries, and such sound trade union activism would also help Bangladesh to grow, he added.
Mujibur Rahman, general secretary of Bangladesh Mukta Sramik Federation, blamed political division among the trade unionists and union leaders’ opportunism for the state of inertia in the trade union movement.
He said that the labour fronts of the mainstream political parties prioritise the party’s interest instead of the workers’ rights. ‘This practice should be stopped.’
The so-called movements have failed to realise a reasonable minimum wage for workers when neighbouring India, Sri Lanka and Nepal have implemented minimum wages worth between Tk 4,000 and Tk 5,000 per month.
Mujibur urged the Awami League, which had promised to introduce a national minimum wage for the workers and ensure their rights if voted to power, to act quickly to fulfil its pledge.
Abdul Matin Master, the president of the Jatiya Sramik League which is the labour front of the AL, neither admitted nor denied the opportunism of trade union leaders.
He blamed the suspension of labour rights during the two-year rule of the military-backed government of Fakhruddin Ahmed for lack of trade union movement.
He accused the BNP-led alliance government of allowing its labour leaders to indulge in anti-worker activities.
Matin opined that the new government, which promised a permanent wage commission for the workers, removal of discrepancy in laws and a wage structure for the informal labourers, should be allowed time to implement its promises.
‘We will help the government to do this. If it fails to do so, we will launch a united movement to realise the workers’ rights,’ said the Sramik League leader.
Nazrul Islam Khan, the president of the Bangladesh Sramik Dal which is the labour front of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said that the trade union movement across the globe has been passing through a transitional phase, and Bangladesh is no exception. He said that the movement to protect the workers’ right is continuing but its form has changed.
Nazrul echoed Matin, saying that the new government should be allowed more time to ensure the workers’ rights after two years of suspension of trade union activities.
He denied the allegation of pervasive opportunism and corruption in the trade union movement. ‘There will always be some rotten apples in a bucketful of apples.’
Wajed-ul Islam Khan also blamed the widespread privatisation of state-owned enterprises by the successive governments, in compliance with international lenders’ prescription, for the inactivity of the trade unions.
The number of workers in the state-owned industries has come down to 57,000 from 10,00,000 over the past years.
The wholesale divestment of industries has shattered the workers’ unity and weakened the trade union movement throughout Bangladesh.
He observed that an ‘upstart’ section sheltered by the mainstream political forces has emerged in the trade unions, which has slowed down the movement. ‘These persons don’t believe in the ideology of trade unionism, rather they always think of the benefits they will get by exploiting the workers.’
The trade union movements in this part of the world were led mainly by the progressive and leftist politicians, but the movement has ground to a halt due to the ‘derailment’ of many of the leftist leaders and their cooperation with the major parties.
‘Such deviations are considered betrayal of the workers and their rights,’ said the Ganatantrik Biplobi Party’s general secretary, Mushrefa Mishu, who has been working for garment factory workers.
Mishu criticised the leaders of the Sramik Krishak Oikya Parisad, an alliance of labour organisations, for not playing their due role in persuading the authorities concerned to fulfil the workers’ basic demands.
Lax enforcement of the existing laws that protect the workers’ rights is also responsible for their sorry plight.
There are as many as 50 laws on workers’ wages and benefits, employment, trade unionism, resolution of industrial disputes, social security, leave, working hours, working environment and labour administration, but they are more or less ignored.