“Denial of Freedom of Association: Testimonies of Obstacles to Union Registration”

The Solidarity Center-Bangladesh organized a report discussion meeting on “Denial of Freedom of Association: Testimonies of Obstacles to Union Registration” on May 28, 2019 (from 3.00 PM to 6.00PM) at Asia Hotel & Resorts at 34/1 Topkhana Road, Dhaka. The program started with welcome speech by Jon Hartough, Country Program Director of Solidarity CenterBangladesh. AKM Nasim, Senior Legal Councilor of Solidarity Center Bangladesh presented a key note paper on findings and recommendations of a research conducted on obstacles in trade union registration.

Among others representative of ILO, Brands & Buyers of RMG products, BGMEA, Labour Court Bar Association, National &Sectoral Trade Union Federations, IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC) and International & national NGOs working on labor rights were present in the program. Participants made several recommendations on ensuring workers’ rights on freedom of association.

The RMG sector employs roughly 4 million workers nationally and generated $33 billion dollars in 2018. The procedure of getting registration of trade union from Department of Labour has been described in the Chapter thirteen “Trade Union and Industrial Relation” of the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006. According to the Section 179 minimum 20% membership of workers is needed for formation of trade union in an establishment.

It was found that the government rejected 46% of the total 1,031 union registration applications tracked from 2010 to 2018. Workers experience constant unfair labor practices (ULPs) in RMG factories, including dismissals for union activism, as well as verbal and physical abuse by management and hired thugs.Few employers are ever fined or otherwise sanctioned for this illegal conduct.

Surveys found that 97% of the workers of this sector remain non-unionized. Workers file an application for registration in compliance with the Bangladesh Labor Act (BLA) but face arbitrary denials of their applications. The Registrar of Trade Unions (RTU) routinely abuses the law and imposes burdensome conditions which are not based in the law or regulations, and violate the spirit of the Act. The report of the ILO Committee of Experts in 2017 showed that despite the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), registration applications were denied at an alarming rate.

Common reasons to deny registration applications include: 1) minor variations in the union member’s signature on the application and the member’s signature on the wage or salary sheet provided by the factory; 2) the union member failed to submit a copy of employer-provided documents such as an ID card or letter; 3) the factory ID number does not match with factory records; and 4) the factory provides overstated workforce numbers in an effort to claim that the union has not met the 20 percent minimum threshold. In some cases, bribery and/or political influence explain application rejections, and in others applications are denied because the union refuses to pay a bribe to the RTU.

Major recommendations are: (1) to consider all employees as ‘worker’ in the law who don’t have hire and fire authority. (2) to make the register of workers available for workers’ inspection so that union organizers can ascertain the actual number of workers employed in the establishment; (3) the RTU’s “satisfaction” with regard to registration of the unions should be limited to the requirements of the BLA.

The investigation procedure of the RTU should be clearly regulated; (4) the law and regulations need to be amended to make the union formation and registration procedure simple and transparent; (5) registration should be awarded if the union can show that it has the required number of members; (6) the 20% membership requirement should be further lowered particularly for establishments that have large numbers of workers; (7) regular updates to the online registration system should be made to ensure transparency; and (8) The JDL should step up enforcement regarding Unfair Labor Practices, especially concerning anti-union discrimination.

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