Labour rights: 22,000 lawsuits pending at labour courts

As many as 21,617 lawsuits are pending in the labour courts of the country. About 75 per cent of the cases were not settled within the stipulated time. Some of the lawsuits have been pending for 10 years.

For example, Shirin Akhter, 35, a worker at a readymade garment factory in Dhaka’s Khilkhet, was fired from her job in 2014 while demonstrating for an increase in wages. In the same year, 19 people, including her, filed a case in the labour court of Dhaka demanding dues from the factory authorities. The case has not been settled even after all these years.

Shirin Akter now lives in Gazipur. Speaking to Prothom Alo over phone on 4 January, she said that she spent a lot of money seeking justice from the court. Now she is sick and suffering from osteoporosis. That is why she did not go to court in the last four months. None of the cases the 19 people filed have been resolved. Meanwhile, one of the plaintiffs died. 

There are 14 labour courts in 10 districts, including Dhaka, in the country. Four of them, including the Appellate Tribunal, are in Dhaka. Victims who are deprived in various ways, including being sacked from jobs, deprived of dues and compensation, can file a case in the labour court seeking legal remedy.

The Labour Act states that the judgement, decision or order of a labour court has to be passed within 60 days from the date of filing of the case. If rendering the judgement is not possible within the stipulated 60 days, the court may extend the time by another 90 days subject to appropriate reasons.

According to the information of the Labour Appellate Tribunal, out of the 21,617 cases in the labour courts of the country until 30 November last year, some 16,141 cases have been pending for more than six months. That means, nearly 75 per cent of the cases have not been settled within the stipulated time. Nearly 90 per cent of the cases filed at labour courts for compensation and recovery of dues were filed by garment workers.

Two lawyers, who handled cases in the labour court, say that the workers show reluctance to pursue their cases as these drag on for years.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, lawyer Kofil Uddin said that he knows of three cases in which compensation cases have not been resolved even after years of filing those but the workers have died. Of the three incidents, only following the death of two workers, their families received compensation. The family of one of the deceased workers does not want to pursue the case anymore.

Another lawyer, Selim Ahsan Khan, said that there are cases that have been pending in the labour court for two decades. In many cases records are now difficult to find.

Why the cases remain pending

Discussion with the lawyers, labour leaders, victims and people involved with the courts revealed three major reasons as to why the cases remain pending in the labour court. Firstly, the number of courts is less than the required number; secondly, lack of effective action to settle the cases; and thirdly, the lawyers involved in the litigation process, especially the lawyers of the owners, put forward various arguments to delay in passing any sentence.

Law Minister Anisul Huq told Prothom Alo that the number of labour courts has been increased from seven to 14 in the last one and a half years. It will be increased, if necessary. He also stated that the problems have been identified to reduce the backlog of cases and various steps are being taken accordingly.

According to court officials, cases filed under sections 213 and 33 of the Labour Act are taking longer time to dispense. In hearing the cases filed under these two sections, the labour court is constituted by a judge and a member each from the employer and the labour’s side. Owners and the union members can only give opinions. The concerned persons said that in many cases, the members employed by the labour unions that follow the owners and governing party remain absent.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Razekuzzaman Ratan, president of Socialist Labour Front and a member of the labour side in the labour court, said that there is a rule that if the owner and the members of the labour’s side are present, the court will be considered as constituted. But the trial proceedings get delayed due to the absence of members of the trade union following the owners and the governing party in many cases.

Section 33 of the Labour Act speaks for the filing of complaints over lay-off (factory closure), retrenchment, dismissal, removal or any other reason, while section 213 deals with the lawsuit of trade unions, employers or workers for enforcement of any recognised right.

Selim Ahsan Khan, former president of the Labour Court Bar Association, an organisation of lawyers working in the labour court, told Prothom Alo that many plaintiffs do not inquire about the cases until the end due to the long process. This makes the future of these cases uncertain. The employer gets away with it but the worker gets no redress.

On average 601 days required for settlement

Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) published a study in 2021 analysing 80 compensation cases filed in the labour courts by workers who suffered workplace injuries and deaths.

The study ‘Tire Them Out: Challenges of Litigating Compensation Claims under Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006’ revealed that it took 601 days on average to pass a sentence in these cases. The study highlighted the issue of procrastination in settlement of compensation cases in Labour Courts. The study also highlighted the fact that the owners refuse to pay compensation even after the courts’ judgement in the cases.

Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation President Kalpana Akter told Prothom Alo that the owners are so powerful that they cannot be brought under the law.

More cases pending in Dhaka

Both the number of cases and pending ones are high in the Labour Courts of Dhaka. According to the Labour Appellate Tribunal, the number of cases pending for more than six months in the three regular labour courts in Dhaka is more than 10,000. The labour court in Gazipur is followed by 4,892 cases pending for more than six months.

Labour leader Ashrafuzzaman keeps track of cases related to the interests of the workers. He provided Prothom Alo with the details of 18 lawsuits. An analysis of those reveals that 11 of the cases have been pending for five years. The remaining seven have been pending for more than two years.

Plaintiffs of 14 of the 18 cases expressed their disappointment to Prothom Alo with some even having stopped pursuing the cases altogether.

One of the plaintiffs is Arifur Rahman. He told Prothom Alo that he worked as a worker in a cosmetic factory for 13 years. The owner did not pay a single paisa of Tk 180,000 he owed to him after leaving the job. Arifur filed a case in a Dhaka Labour Court in November 2021.

Arifur said that the hearing date of the case is decided with a long break in between. As a result, the case proceedings do not proceed. It is uncertain when the verdict will be pronounced, expressed disappointed Arifur.

Empty-handed farewell

As per the Labour Act, when a worker is fired, he has to be paid his ‘service benefit’ (a fixed rate of money according to the length of service) and compensation. It is not that the amount is very high. Lawyers said that in most of the cases the amount of claim is around Tk 100,000.

In some cases, when workers lose their jobs after years of hard work at the factories, they do not even get their entitled meagre amount. When they went to the court, they get disappointed by the procrastination of the trial process.

Milona Akhtar, an apparel factory worker, who filed a case in the labour court in 2014, told Prothom Alo, “I don’t expect to get the money I’m entitled to anymore.”

* The report, originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten by Shameen Reza