Business leaders call for elimination of labour rights weaknesses 

Commerce Ministry

The government held its first formal meeting with business leaders two weeks after unveiling the new US labour rights policy.

During the meeting, business leaders refrained from directly expressing concern about the new policy but instead requested the government to systematically address legal weaknesses pertaining to labour rights. Simultaneously, the government urged traders to uphold competitiveness in exporting products.  

The Ministry of Commerce organised this meeting to assess the implementation progress of the "National Action Plan on Labour Rights" at the secretariat on Monday. Commerce secretary Tapan Kanti Ghosh chaired the hour-and-a-half meeting.  

In attendance were labour secretary Ehsan-e-Elahi, president of FBCCI Mahbubul Alam, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Farque Hassan, executive president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) Mohammad Hatem, and other stakeholders. 

Following the meeting, commerce secretary Tapan Kanti Ghosh informed reporters that the United States is keen on further enhancing the labour situation in Bangladesh, a sentiment also echoed by the European Union (EU). Bangladesh is attaching importance to this demand.  

He stated, over the past few years, the labour situation in Bangladesh has witnessed improvement, marked by several reforms and legal amendments. Consequently, Bangladesh is not currently in any situation to face a trade ban. 

When asked about the possibility of a trade ban, the commerce secretary asserted, "I stated last Thursday as well that there is no situation warranting a trade ban." 

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On 16 November, the US introduced a new policy aimed at safeguarding labour rights globally.

While officially unveiling this policy, the country's secretary of state Anthony Blinken emphasised that sanctions could be imposed, if necessary, on those who oppose workers' rights, pose threats to workers, or engage in intimidation. 

On 22 November, the Bangladesh embassy in Washington sent a letter to the secretary of commerce expressing 'concern' regarding the new US policy on labour rights.

The letter indicated that Bangladesh could potentially become a target of this policy, as it allows for the imposition of sanctions on individuals, institutions, or the state if labour rights are violated. Subsequently, in response to the embassy's letter, the Ministry of Commerce took the initiative to convene a meeting with all relevant parties. 

When questioned about the meeting, BGMEA President Faruque Hassan told Prothom Alo, "I stated in the meeting that I am not concerned about the labour policy of the United States. We are not in violation of labour laws. Our focus is on ensuring that no one breaches labour laws." 

Businessmen who attended the meeting noted that currently, 20 per cent of workers' signatures are required for trade union registration, and there has been an initiative to ease this requirement.  

Under the proposed amendment in the Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Bill-2023, if the total number of workers in an organisation is up to 3,000, 20 per cent must be union members, and if it exceeds 3,000, 15 per cent must be union members for registration. However, there are still questions among workers about this clause, leading to discussions on whether the signature rate can be further reduced. 

Executive President of BKMEA, Mohammad Hatem, reassured that Bangladesh is a pioneer in observing labour rights, with certain processes already in motion.  

He emphasised that there is no cause for alarm regarding the letter from Washington. In response to a query about whether the United States might consider increasing tariffs on Bangladeshi products, Hatem logically stated, "I would say 'no.'" However, he acknowledged that political actions could introduce different considerations. 

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Following the unveiling of the new labour rights policy by the United States on 20 November, some of the country's key leaders convened a meeting with Prime Minister's Adviser on Private Industry and Investment, Salman F Rahman, to discuss the implications of the policy. The government has assured that there is no cause for concern. 

Regarding the recent meeting, FBCCI President Mahbubul Alam stated, "We have advised the government to maintain ongoing discussions with the United States. Simultaneously, we have proposed to persist in the reform efforts concerning the labour issue."