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Trade unions in Export Processing Zones from January

DHAKA, NOV 13: The government has decided in principle to allow factory workers in Export Processing Zones (EPZs) to conduct trade union activities from January 1, 2014, as part of its measures to fulfill the conditions set by the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

It has been decided that workers can observe strike and they would not be blacklisted for trade union activities.

Investors in the EPZs have serious reservation about the issue as they argued that providing such right might cause labour unrest in the EPZs which will jeopardize their investment.

“Updates on Bangladesh Action Plan, 2013”, which has been prepared to submit to the USTR, mentioned that the government will allow trade union activities to improve workers’ right and safety situation.

When contacted, commerce secretary Mahbub Ahmed hinted that the government had in principle agreed to allow strikes in the EPZs, as the legal bar on holding strikes in EPZs expires on December 31, 2012.Later, at a meeting at the BGMEA head office in the capital, Ahmed said they had no alternative to trade union to ensure congenial atmosphere.

According to EPZ EWAIR Act 2010, no strikes or lock-outs are permitted in any industrial unit in the EPZ till December 31, 2013. “As the time bar expires in December this year, the government may allow strikes in EPZs,??? said a senior official of the BEPZA.
The EPZ authorities took the decision as part of the government action plan to fulfil the USTR conditions for revival of GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) facilities in the US market. The USTR will review the Bangladesh action plan in December next.

The government, the country updates said, is committed to ensuring transparency in the enforcement of existing EPZ Workers Welfare Association and industrial Relation Act 2010. The WWA registered under the Act in an industrial unit will act as the collective bargaining agent, the report said.

“It has the right to negotiate directly with the employer on wages, working hours and other terms and conditions of employment,??? it added.

Although the labour and workers’ union leaders welcomed the move, entrepreneurs and industry owners expressed concern saying that the move was too premature, which they said would vitiate the working atmosphere. “It is not the right time. It would be difficult to run industries in EPZs, once the trade union activities are allowed,??? said Farid Ahmed Patwari, who runs a knitwear factory in Dhaka EPZ.

Instead of giving full freedom to the association, some of them suggested introducing CSRs (Corporate Social Responsibility) in the EPZs, which, they said, would help workers financially and make them aware about their rights and social responsibility. Some of them also feared that the right might be abused and pollute the entire environment.
Meanwhile, in response to the government plan, garments factory owners at a meeting in the BGMEA head office demanded proper training to the workers before they are allowed to form trade unions for proper functioning, safety and security of the factories.

The labour secretary, who was also present at the meeting, said the responsibility of the training to the workers was given to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

According to BEPZA, elections were held to 76 per cent of enterprises for formation of workers’ union and accordingly Workers Welfare Associations (WWA) were formed in 192 enterprises in the country’s eight Export Processing Zones (EPZs).  “These associations (WWAs) are entitled to look after workers’ welfare, ensure labour rights and work as Collective Bargaining Agent (CBA) having the right to negotiate directly with employers on issues like wages, conditions of employment and other terms, said BEPZA sources.

The Bangladesh position paper also advocated for change of the EPZ law in conformity with international standards so that workers in the EPZ factories can enjoy the same freedom of association and collective bargaining rights as other workers in the country. BEPZA sources said a high-level committee, headed by a senior secretary of Prime Minister’s office, was formed in this regard.

The committee has formed a working group for bringing EPZ act in conformity with Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Act 2013.  The group has so far held two meetings and drafted laws.

The ministry will submit the country’s progress report to the US administration within a couple of days for review to help Bangladesh regain the lost trade privileges.


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