TRADE UNIONS: CLOUDY PAST, GLOOMY PRESENT, SHINING FUTURE

Published By The Daily Star on May 01, 2014 (Link Above)

THE right to form associations or unions is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Article 38 provides that every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions. Such right is reflected and ensured in Chapter XIII of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (BLA). A Trade Union (TU) is an association of workers or an association of employers, who strive for better wages, better conditions of employment, more productivity, etc.
A TU, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts (collective bargaining) with employers. The most common purpose of unions is maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment. This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies. Workers may also raise concerns on how to improve their own productivity, quantity of their work and so on.
Despite all the good things that TUs are capable of doing, why then do we see workers only revolting, rioting, vandalising, torching, stopping work etc.? Why are we apprehensive of TUS? Why do we have the most negative mind-set regarding TU leaders? There are two sides of every coin. There are many underlying problems that blur the vision of both workers and employers, which only true knowledge can remove.
We have been witnessing continuing agitation by the workers, which at times turned out to be really deadly. Could there not be better communication, better negotiations, a bridge between the owners and workers? In Bangladesh, there is a tremendous lack of consciousness: TUs are not aware of workers’ legal rights and corresponding duties. The most common problem is the lack of knowledge.
Some political leaders, in the guise of workers’ leaders, mislead the workers to satisfy their own agenda. Some so-called NGOs and associated people are also materialising some ‘hidden agenda’ by way of agitating the workers and misleading them about their real/lawful rights and completely hiding the fact that they too have obligations to fulfil. Their aim is to always maintain an agitated mob, who will continue to run after unachievable goals. They gain immediate cheap popularity by delivering speeches having only high dramatic value.
In Bangladesh, it is often seen that both the registrars and the employers are against the creation of TUs. Trade unions, as soon as they are formed, make a lot of demands to their employers. Illegal strikes, lock-outs, etc. often follow when their demands are unfulfilled. The workers often start considering themselves as having power, and try to misuse it. It is also usual for employers to have a mindset against trade unions. As soon as the workers form trade unions, they tend to forget that there are laws which govern what they can do and what they cannot do, and the procedures of the things they can do. It seems as if trade union gives a licence for hooliganism. Workers disregard the fact that there is a process of negotiation, conciliation, arbitration; failure of all of these can lead to strikes. Trade unions of Bangladesh bargain more than they understand because of the limitations of their knowledge. With power come a lot of responsibilities. With power comes corruption also. Unfortunately, the latter is true for some trade union leaders.
The employer and employee are two opposite sides. There had always been problems in this relationship of power, control, domination, submissiveness etc. The law entitles the workers to form TUs to fight for their rights. They are a bridge to fill the gap between employer and employee. Instead of having a negative/positive mindset against/for the workers who want to form TUs, the registrars and employers must maintain a neutral viewpoint.
The 2013 amendments to the BLA 2006 have simplified the lives of those who want to form or be part of trade unions. Before the amendments, there was a provision that the registrar would send to the concerned employer the list of workers who applied for the formation of the trade union. The purpose of this was that the employer could then verify whether the workers were eligible to form such a union. An underlying problem was that this alarmed the employers who did not want their workers to form unions. This almost always resulted in the prevention of the registration of such unions. Now, this rule has been changed and a representative from the registrar’s office goes to the establishment and carries out local inquiry. Thus, unions are formed without any kind of information going to the employer.
Rana Plaza incident has proved to be the ‘high cost of low price.’ Nevertheless, it compelled all concerned to give highest attention to the workers’ rights, including that of forming TUs. As striking as it may sound, in the last nine months, i.e. following 2013 Amendment to the BLA, approximately 140 TUs have been registered. In the thirty years before that, there were only 128 registered TUs. Nevertheless, the number of trade unions in Bangladesh is remarkably low, since there are approximately 4.2 million workers involved only in the garments sector.
To implement and execute the rights, both the employers and workers must be trained. They must be informed about the functions of unions, their meaning, and the motive behind forming a union. Fortunately, many training programmes are being organised under the umbrella of many organisations, including ILO, in order to raise awareness in trade unions. Recently, ILO in conjunction with NCCWE, BILS and IBC, organised Orientation Programme for newly formed TU leaders. All of this together is capable of creating a healthy and happy industrial and trade relationship between the workers and employers, which is very important for a developing labour-rich country like Bangladesh. Let us work for a better workplace than what we see.

The writer is Advocate Supreme Court of Bangladesh.