Today is the historic May Day or Labour Day. The day that represents the heroic struggle and supreme sacrifices of the workers in Chicago City of the USA to establish their right to eight-hour working day is being observed in the country as elsewhere of the world in a befitting manner.
In fact, the Chicago workers' movement was the first step towards a minimum improvement of a very repressive working environment in which workers had to toil throughout the day. But the situation was even worse in many other parts of the world. The workers used to be treated almost like slaves.
However, since the Chicago workers' uprising, the world has seen a sea change in the working conditions in mills and factories. The establishment of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1919 to promote social justice for the working class and ensure better working environment has contributed a lot to making the life and living of the workers better than before. The spread of democracy across the world has also worked as a facilitator in the task of promoting workers' rights.
But the improvement has not been at the same level in all areas of the world. The workers in the developed and some developing countries are better off than their counterparts in the least developed and a few developing countries.
The change is also being noted as far as workers' concentration is concerned. Earlier, the majority of workers were found to be concentrated in manufacturing sector and in other heavy to light industries. In recent decades, a big chunk of the working class is found engaged in services and construction sectors. So, composition of the labour today is very much different from what was four to five decades back.
Despite a few violent eruptions in the post-independence period and recent times, labour movement in Bangladesh has a glorious tradition. The country being a signatory to the ILO conventions has put in place laws, rules and regulations with a view to protecting the rights of the workers. However, not all workers employed in different areas of the economy are enjoying the same rights and privileges. The workers in the organised sectors do enjoy the trade union rights as protected by the law of the land. The workers in the country's largest manufacturing industry, the readymade garments, however, do not enjoy the full TU rights. Only recently, they have been granted some rights in a curtailed form following pressure coming from the major importing countries.
The trade unions have been active in the country's older industries and service institutions belonging to both private and public sectors. The same is not true in the case of some other areas of the economy. As far as the labour market in Bangladesh is concerned, it is a surplus one, meaning that the employers are free to dictate their terms. The people working at various places are not provided with appointment letters and they are deprived of their dues. And the workers do hardly raise their voice against such exploitation for fear of losing their jobs. The developments have been taking place in contrast to a healthy workers-management relationship in the organised sectors.
In the construction sector, women workers are again most exploited. They are given daily wages less than their male counterparts despite the fact they are more sincere at their workplaces.
In recent years, there were a few incidents of violent labour unrest in the apparel sector. Extensive damage was caused to some RMG factories in those incidents that had also claimed a few lives of the workers. To avoid recurrence of such incidents, it is necessary to have a fair mechanism that is acceptable to both owners and workers of RMG units to settle disputes.
Some people tend to believe that workers do need to move away from the path of traditional trade unionism with a view to facilitating industrialisation and entry of more and more entrepreneurs in the economy. Such a notion, however, cannot be dismissed forthwith, for the country desperately needs to create new jobs in large numbers. However, the workers cannot be denied of their rights and privileges under any circumstances. Workers would extend their hands of cooperation only when they see owners are really caring and interested in ensuring their welfare. Thus, the trades unions and the management do need to behave responsibly so that the interests of both are better protected. It is always important for any management to be sympathetic to the cause of the workers and particularly attentive to furthering their mutual interests.
Another important issue that needs to be assessed on this auspicious day is labour productivity. Unfortunately, labour productivity in Bangladesh has been a major problem. This negative factor is hurting the existing industries and affecting prospective investments, both local and foreign. It is important to raise the labour productivity. The policymakers and the private sector are aware of the problem. But they are not doing enough to improve the situation. An educated and productive labour force is an asset for the economy of any country. It is expected that all involved would do their best to build such an asset.
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