Workers have been the main asset in Bangladesh's socioeconomic advancement over the years. The country had achieved the millennium development goals (MDGs-2015) and is moving fast towards attaining sustainable development goals (SDGs-2030) due to the huge contributions made by this precious asset. However, although Bangladesh is now on the verge of becoming a developing nation by graduating from the status of a least developed country, much still needs to be done in some areas including reforming relevant labour law, rules and policies for improving the work environment. More specifically, elimination of harassment at the workplace, wage discriminations, timely payment of wages, and job uncertainties deserve urgent attention of the policy makers.
The ILO Convention No. 190 is an international treaty that recognizes the rights of everyone for a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based ones. The ratification of this convention and its enforcement in Bangladesh is urgently needed in order to improve the situation at the workplace, especially for women. This legal necessity once again came to light at a recent online dialogue organized by CARE Bangladesh in Dhaka,which was attended by relevant stakeholders including legislators and policy makers.
Although Bangladesh has a number of laws for tackling harassment and violence, the legal framework for curbing such offences at the workplace is still very weak. The labour law of the country has not even defined workplace harassment and violence. Section 332 of Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 states that no person of any establishment should behave with any employed woman that might seem to be indecent or unmannerly or which is repugnant to the modesty or honour of that woman. But the provision is clearly gender insensitive, and does not specifically refer to harassment or violence that women face at the workplace. The maximum punishment under it is only a fine of Taka 25 thousand. The High Court Guidelines of 2009 defined sexual harassment and mentioned about punishment for the perpetrators of such offences, but not much was offered to the victim with the exception of counselling. Besides, the enforcement framework for labour law and gender-based violence is very weak. Consequently, proper application and supervision of the law should be ensured alongside reforming it.
Apart from reforming law and policies by catering to all stakeholders, awareness about them also needs to be generated as many owners, workers and labour leaders lack clear or precise idea about these. The government clearly has a role to play in this regard alongside the workers' organizations and trade unions. Besides, discussions also need to take place on how labourers working in the informal sector can be brought under the purview of the labour law. There is also a need for social cum educational campaign, as things are unlikely to improve much unless the social outlook and individual attitude towards gender-based violence changes for the better. The government can prepare a roadmap for ensuring safe workplace for all workers irrespective of their gender.
The readymade garments (RMG) industryhas achieved commendable success in Bangladesh due to the participation of female workers, who constitute 60 per cent of the workforce in the sector. The participation of women in other sectors including agriculture is also rising. But sexual harassment and gender-based violence against them are also shooting up across the country. Therefore, a safe and secure workplace free from harassment is a must for attracting more women to the jobs market. This necessitates the ratification of ILO Convention No. 190 and amendments to the country's labour law and policies. The convention has come into force across the globe from 25 June this year. Experts opine that there is no ground for official hesitation regarding ratification of this convention. This would also help in branding Bangladesh as a progressive country that sticks to the highest international standards in safeguarding the rights of female workers. Political goodwill at the topmost level is required for making such a pragmatic move.
Women face harassments at the workplace depending on their age, position and marital status. They have to prove their position not only as woman but also as worker. The factories and establishments should therefore ensure adequate facilities for their safety at the workplace including provision of day-care centres for children, office transports, separate washrooms, sanitary and hygiene care, etc. The workers' bodies should also have at least one-third representation from women. Training sessions should also be organized in factories for enhancing gender sensitivity. Even families - the basic units of our society - should be freed from the malaise of gender discrimination.
Experts also opine that an element of accountability would be added if the government ratifies the ILO Convention No. 190. The High Court verdict on sexual harassment delivered in 2009 is also binding on the government. Although there was a section on sexual harassment in The Women and Child Repression Act, 1995, it was unfortunately removed in 2003 for fear of misuse. Proving such allegations is very challenging, as a result of which many offenders go scot-free. It moreover needs to be kept a secret, as the accused is not a criminal until proved guilty. The workers should be conscious about all these aspects.
In view of the above, the government should immediately ratify the ILO Convention No. 190 and take measures for its proper implementation at the workplace. The labour law should be amended and updated in line with it by including labourers working in both the formal and informal sectors. Gender-based violence and harassment should be specifically included in the law. Besides, rigorous application of the rules and policies related to sexual violence and harassment should be ensured and all the factories and establishments should brought under a monitoring cumsupervision mechanism for the purpose. The representation of women in trade unions should be enhanced by ensuring 33 per cent quota for them in those bodies. Moreover, publicity campaign should be waged for making female workers aware about their rights.
Dr HelalUddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. [email protected]