Gendered Assessment of Labour Laws in Bangladesh

Written by Abhishree Choudhary

Research Associate at Law & Order


Source: Bangladesh Labour Foundation

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.



Introduction


Gendered division of labour is a phenomenon common to all modern societies. The public-private divide confides women confined to the domestic sphere wherein they spend a majority of time on household maintenance, child care, and a number of farm related activities- thrashing rice paddy, drying, husking, storing—which are performed within the boundaries of the private sphere. Similarly, the social order in Bangladesh is defined by a rigid gendered division of labour wherein women were confined to activities in the private sphere, while men pursued their economic and political interests in the public sphere. In general, the female population was conditioned to show deference to the male authority figure (Khondker and Jahan, 1989). However, the Bengali social disorder was thwarted by the economic crisis-exploitative social structures, high levels of landlessness and destitution of the rural poor, low farm productivity, rapid population growth, unstable political system compounded by the impact of the 1974 floods. Thereby, the Bangladeshi women had to give up their traditional role as caretakers of the household and join the labour force to support the home economy (Khondker and Jahan, 1989).


While women who were confined to gender specific profession, the economic crisis of 1974 pushed women to adopt traditionally male dominated occupations (eg. Construction, earth work etc).

It led to a gradual increase in the female labour force participation where 37% of women over the age of 15 are actively engaged in the labour market economy as of 2019 (modelled ILO estimate) - Bangladesh | Data", 2019). The increase in female labour participation and economic growth in Bangladesh exhibits a shift of occupation focus from the agricultural sector to the manufacturing sector (Islam and Rahman 2013). In this context, this essay carries out a gendered assessment of the labour policies in Bangladesh, furthermore it evaluates the implementation of the labour laws by studying the labour conditions in the RMG industry. Finally, the essay concludes by highlighting policy gaps and gives policy recommendations.




Legislative Frameworks



The Bangladeshi female workforce is protected and empowered by a slew of domestic and international labour legislations. Ali (2010) highlights the following Articles under the Constitution of Bangladesh which underscore Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) labour laws

—in Article 10 of the Constitution, the state ensures the participation of women in all spheres of national life; Sub Article 15(b)encourages female labour force participation by ensuring the right to work, at a reasonable wage; Article 19 enforces the principle of equality of opportunity; Article 28 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex and reinforces women’s equal rights in all spheres of public life and allows for special provisions in favour of women’s advancement; Article 29 assures non-discrimination in employment for all citizens and special provisions for adequate representation of the population within the service of the state; Article 34(1) prohibits forced labour; and Article 38 guarantees right to form associations and unions. Hence, the Constitution of Bangladesh embodies the principle of gender equality, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and promotes equality of opportunity for women to participate in politics and in public life (Ali, 2010).


In addition to the Constitution, the 2006 Bangladesh Labour Act (BLA) also incorporates rights and protection for workers, including women workers, integrating requirements for the provision of compensation for workers who are laid off (Section 16 and 20); grievance procedures (Section 33); provision for maternity benefits (Sections 45 to 50) and other legislations related to working hours and leave and provisions related to the payment of wages (Odhikar Report, 2020). Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) legislation in Bangladesh involves different domestic labour laws such as the Maternity Benefit Act, the Maternity Benefit (Tea Estates) Act, the Factories Act and the Factory Rules (Ali, 2010). The government of Bangladesh also carried out multiple plans and policy documents like National Strategy For Accelerated Poverty Reduction II (NSARP II) and National Policy For Women’s Advancement (NPWA) which include demand side issues such as promoting gender sensitive growth, enhancing women’s participation in mainstream economic activities and advocacy campaign and supply side measures such as eliminating discrimination against women, creation of opportunities for education and skills development of capacity through health, nutrition, care, promoting an enabling work environment for the female labour force (Islam and Rahman 2013).


Bangladesh has also signed several international conventions to promote EEO such as ILO Night Work (Women) Convention (Revised), 1948 ratified by Bangladesh on 22 June 1972, ILO Underground Work (Women) Convention, 1935, ratified on 22 June 1972, ILO Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958, ratified on 22 June 1972, UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979, ratified on 6 November 1984 (acceded) ILO Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951, ratified on 28 January 1998 and UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, ratified on 5th September 1998 (acceded). Bangladesh also ratified the Convention concerning the equal remuneration for Men and Women workers for work of equal value on 28th January 1998. This principle of equal pay for equal work was further reinforced in Section 345 of the Bangladesh Labour Act. The Bangladeshi Government has also provided women with greater access to microcredits from Grameen Banks (Islam and Rahman 2013). Other policies include training courses for women in areas of livestock, poultry and handicraft, provision of food security and promoting employment opportunities etc.

Therefore, comprehensive domestic and international labour legislations are in effect in Bangladesh.


Assessment


To assess the complex implications of these aforementioned legislative frameworks,this essay examines the Readymade Garment (RMG) industry. The RMG industry accounts for 83% of the country’s total export revenue (Mastuura et al., 2020). This industry primarily features female - driven employment with over 80% of the four Million workers being women (Mastuura et al., 2020). Therefore, studying the workers’ rights parameters and conditions of women in this sector provides a window into usefulness and quality of implementation of said labour laws.

Therefore the paper examines labour legislations against the ground reality of female labourers in the industry, by using the framework tabulated by Hossain et al. (2010).


Employment Standards


Reports show that RMG workers are not given proper appointment letters or employment status.The Odhikar report noted that the factory management failed to keep adequate filing and tracking systems thus, violating the BLA and Labour laws in place. On many occasions, RMG workers have neither received compensation for overtime wages, festival bonuses nor their monthly and weekly wages in a timely fashion. (Odhikar report 2020). Female labourers receive unrealistic work quotas, insufficient breaks, minimal opportunities to communicate outside the factory and are consistently under the threat of losing their jobs due to lack of trade unions and enforceable laws.. (Akhter et al., 2019)


Occupational Safety and Health

Following the Rana Plaza Disaster of 2013, the pressure put on Bangladesh internationally led to efforts being made to improve the legislative framework in terms of safety standards. However, these mostly pertained to structural safety in the RMG sector. Yet, reports of casualties due to boiler explosions, fires, lack of fire safety equipment etc. emerge regularly. . Although structural reforms have been made, the working conditions for women remain unsatisfactory. Akhtar et al. (2019) notes that women work under hot lights, limited artificial cooling, and lack of ventilation. They do not have any clean drinking water nor any toilet or wash facilities at the work site (Odhikar 2020). The workers under several reports testified that hygienic facilities were arranged right before visits from buyers and supervisors.


Welfare and Social Protection

Labourers in the RMG industry in Dhaka testified that they were not given access to any canteens, restrooms, or any other accommodations such as day care centres or medical services (Odhikar 2020). Akhtar et al. documented that female labourers suffering from gastric problems, headaches, fatigue etc. were not given any first aid or medicines and were occasionally accused of stealing medicines. In terms of social security provisions, no provident fund is schemed for the workers. Women often leave the RMG sector fearing miscarriage due to heavy workload and lack of any protective measures, however, a large majority avoid taking any leave even while experiencing difficulties during pregnancy to avoid losing their jobs (Mastuura et al., 2020).


Labour Relations and Social Dialogue


In the issue brief by ILO it was found that women were usually ‘reluctant’ to join trade unions out of fear of losing their jobs or facing undesirable consequences such as verbal or physical harassment by superior management.(Mastuura et al., 2020). In any case, the RMG factories ensure that trade unions are not permitted to exist and that women do not have the right to collective bargaining or association and are vulnerable to being dismissed.(Odhikar 2020).


In an industry with 80% of the workforce being women, there is rampant gender based violence and harassment from male supervisors. Reports suggest that women are consistently verbally and physically abused by their male supervisors, line chiefs and production managers (Odhikar 2020; Mastuura et al., 2020; Akhtar et al. 2019). Female workers have also been sexually exploited and fulfilling sexual demands for supervisors and managers is a ‘widespread practice’ (Odhikar 2020).

From the accounts of the female workers in the RMG industry it can be noted that the working conditions for female labourers are abysmal. They are treated in an inhumane manner, like machinery, while their human rights are unabashedly violated. Finally, these precedents beg the question why female labourers suffer in dire situations while being protected by a comprehensive legal framework.


Gaps and Recommendations


Afroza Begum in their paper “Equality of Employment in Bangladesh” (2005) presents a feminist approach to the existing EEO laws. The author argues that the legal approach to equality in Bangladesh is incomplete in dealing with women’s employment.


In their opinion the constitutional approach, which is overwhelmingly influenced by the formal theory of equality, focuses more on eliminating discrimination than achieving equality. As a result, women are competing with men for employment without having the same socioeconomic capital . Begum cites the Supreme Court of India “equality of opportunity for unequals can only mean aggravation of inequality.”

Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination (CEDAW) defines indirect discrimination as the practice of ‘apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice [which] disadvantages a substantially higher proportion of the member of one sex’ (Begum 2005). In this context, human rights violations that take place against the female labour force are due to the absence of any punitive legislation against labour rights violations. The silence of law on these matters certainly creates a roadblock toward achieving equality in the workplace. Adding to legislative troubles, no international treaty can be upheld to hold the foreign companies accountable (Odhikar 2020). Mastuuru et al. recommend developing legislations that criminalize violence and harassment including gender based violence and sexual harassment.


Begum (2005) opines that protective legislation procedures produce an additional barrier to women’s work instead of remedying their specific problems in employment. She auses the example of the Maternity Benefit Act to state that without holding the employers accountable, the Act further exacerbates women’s vulnerabilities instead of remedying them. Mastuuru et al. (2020) noted that pregnant women who could not reach their work quotas were intentionally subjected to verbal abuse by male supervisors, in order to provoke them into quitting. She recommends the implementation of stronger measures alongside accountability mechanisms to increase women’s representation in the workplace.


Enforcement of existing legislation and regulations through monitoring of sites of female labour is the need of the hour, in order to certify adequate facilities, job security, and guarantees (Odhikar 2020).

Finally, Begum (2005) emphasizes the importance of international instruments and their substantive standards to mandate proactive pro-women policies and to dismantle discrimination. In this regard, there is an urgent need for collaborative effort wherein the government works with factory owners, MNCs, private enterprises to record the shortcomings in the treatment of the female labour force and adopt international treaties as domestic policies for the realization of a safe and well treated labour force.


Raihan and Bidisha (2018) suggest interventions for female employment as a joint effort by the government sector, private sector, NGOs in order to bring about work space safety, relevant training for female workers, low cost accommodation, day care centre, transport services, awareness programmes and social safety of female workers.

Conclusion


In conclusion, it is noted that there is no scarcity of equal opportunity legislation in Bangladesh. Several domestic and international treaties have been put in place to ensure equal rights for the female labour force in terms of participation and work conditions. However the implementation and enforcement of such laws has been substandard. Hence, women of the labour force have not been adequately empowered to actively participate in the social, economic and political life of the country. There is an urgent need to improve the quality of life for the female labour force in Bangladesh through an increasing focus on education, work standards, and weaving female labourers within the social, political and economic fabric of the nation.





References


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