Advocacy for a fairer salary structure
WE JUST noticed a mass movement of over 150,000 tea workers striking and protesting for a living wage in Bangladesh. Garment workers’ rights organizations have also begun to mobilize to raise the existing minimum wage to a living wage. In this context, I would like to draw attention to some fundamental problems with our labor laws, our wage structure and our review process. The Labor Act of 2006 in Bangladesh dictates the minimum wage for workers. According to labor law, the minimum wage must be reviewed every five years. In fact, some sectors review the minimum wage every five years, some do so every three years, and some do not review it at all.
No mandatory annual increase
WE NEED laws and policies requiring annual wage increases in all employment sectors. Although the Bangladeshi context is not comparable to that of the United States simply because the countries are very different in many ways, there are similarities and lessons to be learned from organizing initiatives in the United States. For example, the US federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25/hour since 2009. Workers and activists there have long been organizing to raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15/hour. Yet the federal government has become more interested in protecting the interests of big business, corporations, and the free market. Nevertheless, some states in the United States have shown promising trends in raising the minimum wage at the state level. For example, Massachusetts enacted a law in 2018 that dictated an increase in the minimum wage each year by 75 cents/hour until it reaches $15/hour by 2023. The current minimum wage in Massachusetts is $14.25/hour. While the US federal position is frustrating and resembles scenarios in Bangladesh, Massachusetts labor law offers an inspiring model that could be adopted with necessary modifications in the Bangladesh context.
Currently, no sector of employment in Bangladesh involves a mandatory annual raise. The garment sector has only received a minimum wage increase four times in the history of Bangladesh – in 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2019 – since the industry began its journey in the early 1980s. to say that the increases did not happen simply because of certain worker-friendly protocols and policies. Workers and workers’ rights activists have had to organize and fight hard for each of these increases. Moreover, despite the increases, the minimum wage was not commensurate with annual inflation and rising living and other expenses. Some union organizers demanded BDT 20,000/month in 2018 after reviewing the living expenses of garment workers, but the minimum wage was reduced from BDT 5,300/month to only BDT 8,000/month. This year, some workers’ rights organizations are calling for an increase in the minimum wage to BDT 24,000/month. We will see how the government, the wages commission and the factory owners will eventually react.
Sinister situation in sectors not subject to international labor defense
SECTORS that do not face constant international pressure from global labor advocates face an even grimmer picture. The tea workers’ union has offered a minimum wage of BDT 300/day since 2019, but they had to settle for BDT 170/day this year. Workers working in the jute, rubber or salt industries have not seen a minimum wage increase for years. In addition, there are huge gaps between different sectors when it comes to the minimum wage. BBC Bengali (September 2022) reports that the catering industry has an official minimum wage of BDT 3,710/month, but the construction and timber industry minimum wage is above BDT 16,000/month. Needless to say, these numbers are set by the wage commission. In reality, the actual wage that workers receive can vary considerably from one sector to another.
Unrecognized and feminized sectors
THE government of Bangladesh dictates the minimum wage for 42 sectors, but these sectors do not include the agricultural sector which employs the largest number of workers. Wages in the agricultural sector are totally left to free market forces. The same goes for domestic work – one of the most feminized sectors next to our garment industry – which employs more than 10.5 million adults and 420,000 children. About 90 percent of these workers are women. Domestic work is not even recognized as a sector in our existing labor laws, and it has no wage policy.
Unionization can make a difference
HISTORICALLY, sectors that have a long history of organizing or that have been able to use international advocacy have been prioritized by the wages commission. Unionization in the garment, tea, road and transport industries has brought some benefits to our workers, although the minimum wage is still below what our workers need to meet their basic needs. Sectors, such as domestic work, that are highly informal, feminized and unregulated have been left at the mercy of market forces. The same applies to the agricultural sector, where workers are often unemployed for several months, and no significant initiative has been taken to organize these workers.
Although Bangladesh’s Labor Act of 2006 excludes domestic workers, the Domestic Workers’ Protection and Welfare Policy began to recognize their struggles in 2015 and gave these workers access to the Bangladesh Labor Welfare Foundation. fund. However, this charitable provision did not create any legal rights for these workers. For example, domestic workers do not have the right to organize according to the provisions of the labor laws in force in Bangladesh. In this context, the National Union of Domestic Workers, affiliated to the International Federation of Domestic Workers, is the largest unregistered union with nearly 20,000 domestic workers living outside. Here we notice the recurring tendency that some initiatives have been made possible through some sort of international pressure or connections.
The NDWU has adopted a series of strategies to organize domestic workers. For example, it works closely with the Bangladesh Institute of Social Studies to form the Domestic Workers Rights Network, which includes members of trade unions, NGOs, lawyers and human rights activists. The NDWU has also pushed the Bangladeshi government to ratify and implement the 2011 ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers and the 1952 ILO Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention. He drafted a Code of Conduct on the Employment of Domestic Workers, which later evolved into the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy of 2015. In this way, the NDWU attempted to bridge the gap between domestic workers informal servants and the state #( WIEGO and IDWF 2020)#. Nonetheless, many of these initiatives are still exclusively directed at state and policy-level change rather than organizing domestic workers on the ground and nurturing grassroots alliances. Without local and grassroots organizing initiatives – and, more importantly, effective organizing – it will be difficult to bring about meaningful change in the lives of domestic workers.
There is so much we could do in terms of recognizing excluded and underrepresented employment sectors in our existing labor laws, raising current minimum wages to livable wages, regularly reviewing wages for all sectors and by instituting policies of annual increases proportional to inflation and the cost of living. We must also ensure that we prioritize industries that are not export-oriented and that are not under international pressure to protect workers’ rights. While international solidarity is key to building alliances and lobbying the government, we cannot afford to rely on our global advocates to speak on our behalf in all cases. We must mobilize to strengthen our local organizing efforts and nurture sustainable labor movements that put workers first.
Nafisa Tanjeem is Associate Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Worcester State University, USA.