By : Jose Sonny G. Matula
National President
Federation of Free Workers (FFW), an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

Good morning madam Chairperson! Thank you for this opportunity of the Federation of Free Workers (FFW)-Philippines to intervene in solidarity with the workers of Bangladesh.

Once upon a time organizing a union was a criminal act.  Trade unions were illegal for many years in most countries until the middle of the 19th century. Today, Freedom of Association is universally recognized. In actual practice, however, it needs a lot of improvement requiring enormous affirmative actions.  

We who come from the Philippines can identify ourselves with the workers from Bangladesh, where the exercise of the right to organize and to collectively bargain is not only hazardous to our workers’ health but also to their life.

The ITUC noted that extra judicial killings (i.e. the murder of Aminul Islam), discriminations, harassments, threats against life and other acts of violence against trade unionists and workers appear to be more of common occurrence.
In Bangladesh, the ITUC also reported the existence of:

The fundamental law of Bangladesh generally recognizes Freedom of Association. But, in the enacting legislations, implementing rules and actual practice, Freedom of Association is wanting and workers face anti-union discrimination. They are routinely fired for initiating or attempting to form unions.

Like in the Philippines, the culture of anti-union is prevalent in Bangladesh. It is being observed that employers are not only anti-union but notoriously busting unions, especially but not limited to the Ready Made Garments (RMG) sector in the Export Processing Zones.

If not destroying unions, the employers are actively promoting non-union worker committees or, in Export Processing Zones, workers` welfare associations (WWAs) as an alternative to trade unions.

The employers are so powerful that they appointed or hand-picked workers` representatives instead of being elected by the workers themselves as required by law in this WWAs. 

We have experienced this in the Philippines where the employers are directly busting or discouraging unions, they are encouraging Labour Management Committees (LMC) with their hand-pick workers’ representatives as replacements of or substitutes to trade unions.

And, mind you, employers are rarely held accountable for unfair labour practice acts or serious violations of labour laws.

In Bangladesh, the ITUC noted the following blatant violation of Convention No. 87, among others:

A. Delisting of Unions or Labour organizations.

On June 3, 2010, the NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB) of Bangladesh delisted or cancelled the registration of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), a prominent NGO providing support to workers in the garment industry, and depriving its access to its resources by freezing its bank accounts.

The cancellation was announced without observing basic due process:

(1) no prior notice given to BCWS, and
(2)  without any opportunity given to rebut the accusations made against it.

The loss of registration has had a heavy financial cost on the organization, limiting staff and resources available to provide support for workers.

The delisting or blatant refusal to register trade unions and to allow them to operate freely is a violation of Convention No. 87 as “Workers' and employers' organisations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority”

This delisting or refusal to register is also one of the reasons why conditions continue to deteriorate and that a mature industrial relations system has failed to take off.

B. Dis-empowering Trade Unions by substituting them with WWAs

In Export Processing Zones (EPZ), Worker Welfare Associations (WWA) with diminished bargaining power have been established in some factories. However, employers have failed to take the next step and bargain collectively as required by the law governing the EPZs.

Under Convention 87, “the public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.”  Yet, the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (BEPZA), which among other things enforces the labour law in the zones, has not only discouraged collective bargaining but has actively undermined the bargaining process.

There are also numerous cases in which leaders of WWAs have been fired in retaliation for the exercise of their limited rights.

At peak, there were roughly 90 such associations in the EPZs; however, as they have been unable to function because employers failed to follow the law (e.g., refusing to providing meeting space, refusing to allow workers to hold meetings, refusing to review grievances, refusing to bargain) and BEPZA has failed to enforced it, many times.

WWAs have become moribund.  As the initial leaders have left or been fired, new leaders have not taken their places.

C. Applicable law not enforce

It has been reported that the applicable labour laws, the Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006 and the EPZ Worker Welfare Association and Industrial Relations Act of 2010, continue to fall well short of international norms with regard to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Currently, there is an ILO-led process under way to reform the Labour Act as to a handful of priority issues. The proposals include amendments on the minimum membership requirement of 30 per cent of the total number or workers employed in an establishment or group of establishments, eliminating the disclosure of names of union founders to the employer, and setting the number of union officers who may not be employed in the enterprise.

Comments have been submitted by the employers and workers to the Ministry of Labour, following numerous tripartite dialogue sessions facilitated by the ILO. It was hoped that a package would be voted on shortly but, as yet, there is no indication as to what the legislative package contains and when it will receive a vote.

D. Failure to Register New Unions

Although the law permits workers to form unions in their respective workplaces, unions cannot function legally without first obtaining a registration certificate from the Joint Director of Labour (JDL).

However, the ban on the registration of unions that was instituted during the military caretaker government, while lifted in law, has not been lifted in practice. 

Numerous unions have filed registration applications with the JDL, but due to a very slow and cumbersome process, in addition to the inherent anti-union attitude of the government, very few applications have been acted upon.

Unions have also complained that the registration process requires a list of the names of union members or supporters to be submitted with the application. These lists are often handed over to the employers that then retaliate against the workers through disciplinary action which may include the supreme penalty of termination from employment.

It must be pointed out that under Article 2 of Convention 87, “Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation.”
We condemn the cases mentioned earlier as they are clear violations of Convention no. 87.
We join the proposal of the AFL-CIO in its call to, among others:

The Federation of Free Workers with the other affiliates of ITUC is in solidarity with the workers of Bangladesh.
We further ask the ILO, Madam Chairperson, to extend technical assistance to the Workers and Employers as well as the Government of Bangladesh to align their laws with International Labour Standards that will benefit and protect the workers at the earliest possible time.

Thank you for your attention.



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