Under increasing international pressure to address problems in its clothing industry, legislators in Bangladesh this week changed the country’s labor law to make it easier for workers to form unions. But the changes fall far short of what is needed and are unlikely to do much to prevent the fires, building collapses and other tragedies that have claimed hundreds of lives in recent years.
Since the collapse of a factory building killed more than 1,100 workers in April, the Bangladeshi government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been trying to show that it is cracking down on lax safety standards that plague its garment industry, which is a major supplier to Western retailers like Wal-Mart, Gap and H&M. More unionized workers can bring greater pressure on factory owners to improve safety.
The new law denies factory owners the ability to veto unions — an important and positive change. But it also sets ridiculously high hurdles for workers who want to unionize. For instance, the law requires that the union’s leadership be drawn from the workers’ ranks — a union cannot, in other words, hire outside leaders — which means that owners can weaken their opponents simply by firing people they don’t like. It also says that the government will not recognize a union unless 30 percent of a company’s total workers vote for one. A company may have plants many miles apart, so rounding up that many votes could be hard. (In the United States, 30 percent of workers at an individual factory can petition to establish a union.)
The laws are restrictive in other ways, too. Unions will not be permitted in factories in special export zones, where many plants that cater to Western companies are based. More than two-thirds of union members would have to authorize a strike (in the United States, a simple majority usually suffices). The government would also have the right to stop any strike it determines to be a “serious hardship to the community” or is “prejudicial to the national interest,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Government officials say the law should be enough to dissuade the Obama administration and the European Union from suspending trade preferences for Bangladesh. But, on close inspection, the law provides little comfort that the four million people employed in Bangladeshi clothing factories will be protected from dangerous working conditions. America and Europe must press for more.