Bangladesh unions reject new labour laws for garment workers

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh's union leaders on Thursday rejected new labour laws for garment factory workers drawn up in the wake of April's industrial disaster, saying they failed to improve their rights and entitlements.

The Bangladesh government had agreed to allow the nation's factory workers to form trade unions without prior permission from factory owners, after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment complex that killed more than 1,100 people.

But union leaders said the new amendments now being debated in parliament propose the formation of a "participation committee" in factories to be headed by bosses, instead of unions organised by workers.

"These amendments are a sham," union leader Wajedul Islam said.

"A participation committee cannot be a collective bargaining agent because it will be headed by the owner. It won't ensure worker rights, rather curb them," he said.

"We've rejected them and asked the government and the parliament to make necessary changes to make our labour laws in line with international standards," Mr Islam said.

The collapse of the nine-storey garment complex killed 1,129 people and highlighted appalling safety conditions in Bangladesh's garment plants, which make clothing for top Western retailers such as Walmart, H&M, Carrefour, Tesco and Inditex.

The government set up a panel to raise the minimum wage for the country's three million garment workers after the disaster and shut down about two dozen factories for poor safety conditions.

Officials have said the new rights measures, which have been approved by the cabinet, would make it easier to set up unions in garment factories as well as compensate workers who become caught up in factory accidents.

But union officials said the amendments strike down a decades-old clause in Bangladesh's labour laws making it mandatory for export-oriented factory owners to share 5 per cent of net profits with their workers.

The new clauses also do not apply to Bangladesh's eight export-oriented industrial parks where hundreds of thousands of people work in mostly foreign-owned factories.

"Can we have two different sets of laws in one country?" Mr Islam asked, adding that women working in some garment factories are allowed four months of maternity leave, while other factories and government offices gave six months.

Mr Towhidur Rahman, head of the Bangladesh Apparel Workers Federation, said they widen the scope to dismiss workers without paying benefits, as well as allow the hiring of temporary workers to cope with emergency shipments.

"Once a worker is hired temporarily on the grounds of emergency shipments, I am sure he or she will never be made permanent. We have hundreds of such instances. These workers will get no compensation (benefits)," he said.