Labour law: What youths need to know

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In the heart of Dhaka, where the tech industry buzzes with relentless energy, Nazmul, a talented young software engineer, tirelessly codes away, oblivious to the rights violations he endures daily. Unpaid overtime and unsafe conditions are his reality, not because he accepts them, but because he doesn't know any better. This situation is alarmingly common in Bangladesh, where enforcement remains a significant challenge despite strides in labour legislation since independence in 1971. Employers often view labour regulations as burdensome and find ways to evade them. Nazmul's experience underscores the pressing and urgent need for better dissemination of information among youths on labour rights and more robust enforcement mechanisms.

Across the ocean in New York City, Everly, a vibrant marketing executive, navigates her career confidently, bolstered by regular workshops on labour laws provided by her employer. Despite her knowledge of her rights, Everly's brother, a struggling artist, faces challenges such as wage theft and the precarious nature of gig economy jobs, which are increasingly common in the US labour market. The American labour system, although robust with laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), still struggles with issues like those mentioned above.

In Toronto, Ryan, a seasoned logistics manager, discusses labour rights over coffee with his colleagues. While Canada's comprehensive labour protections give him peace of mind and a platform to advocate for workplace safety and fairness, he grapples with inconsistencies in labour standards across different provinces, which proves challenging as he plans to move to a different province after his wedding. Although Canada's labour laws, including the Canada Labor Code and various provincial regulations, reflect a commitment to social welfare and worker protection, there are challenges regarding the precarious jobs immigrants do.

An online survey with sample size of 60 conducted by the writer recently among millennials and some Gen Z individuals (ages 25 to 44) with educational backgrounds in Business (15.5 per cent), STEM (74.1 per cent), and Law (8.6 per cent) revealed significant differences in labour law awareness. About 74 per cent of the participants from Bangladesh, the US, and Canada who took this survey were full-time employees. The findings were:

n Job satisfaction: Bangladeshi workers reported an average job satisfaction level of 3.35 out of 5, compared to 2.25 in Canada and 3.1 in the USA. This higher satisfaction in Bangladesh may stem from cultural differences and lower expectations due to insufficient knowledge.

n Job security perception: Bangladeshi workers' job security perception is 3.0, slightly higher than that of Canadians at 2.75 and Americans at 2.82.

n Labour law awareness: Bangladesh's (3.5) is higher than Canada's (2.7) and the USA's (3.0).

n Job rights awareness: Bangladesh (2.47) lags behind Canada (3.63) and the USA (3.35).

n Employer-provided benefits awareness: Americans (3.88) and Canadians (3.68) surpass Bangladeshis (2.26).

Interestingly, despite higher job satisfaction, 75 per cent of Bangladeshi respondents desire to move to another country for better opportunities, and 80 per cent plan to pursue an advanced degree within the next five years. In Canada, 70 per cent of the respondents also aspire to move abroad, while 40 per cent aim to obtain an advanced degree in the same timeframe. In contrast, only 16.7 per cent of US respondents intend to move to another country, with the same group planning to pursue advanced degrees.

These findings suggest a significant inclination among Bangladeshi and Canadian workers to seek better opportunities abroad and further their education, highlighting potential dissatisfaction or a desire for greater advancement compared to their American counterparts. Tamzid Azad, former product lead at Grameenphone in Bangladesh, who moved to Toronto to pursue an MBA at Schulich, notes, "My perspective on labour law has changed. I have more trust in the enforcement of the laws in Canada."

Enhancing labour law awareness in Bangladesh is a multi-dimensional task requiring a multifaceted approach. Government initiatives should focus on enforcing existing laws and implementing educational programmes. Employers should educate their employees about their rights and ensure compliance. NGOs and civil society organisations can be crucial in advocating for workers' rights and providing educational resources. Collaboration among these stakeholders is necessary to make a real difference.

Learning from successful international examples can offer valuable insights. For instance, Brazil's 2013 Constitutional Amendment 72 on domestic workers' rights significantly improved conditions for domestic workers. Similarly, Sweden's 1976 Co-Determination in the Workplace Act (Lag om medbestämmande i arbetslivet, or MBL) has ensured that workers have a say in workplace decisions, fostering better labour-management relations. These strategies, tailored to Bangladesh's unique context, can help create a culture of awareness and advocacy where each individual's role is vital in the fight for labour rights.

As Nazmul learns more about his rights, he begins advocating for himself and his colleagues, fostering a safer and fairer workplace. His journey mirrors the broader efforts needed to enhance labour law awareness in Bangladesh, especially among the youth of the country. By understanding and addressing the gaps, we can ensure that workers everywhere are empowered and protected, like Everly's brother in New York and Ryan in Toronto.

The stories of Nazmul, Everly, and Ryan highlight the transformative power of labour law awareness. Bridging the gap in knowledge and enforcement creates a more just and equitable world of work. The journey from ignorance to empowerment is not only possible but crucial for improving working conditions globally and starts with education and advocacy at all levels. This potential for positive change should inspire hope and optimism in our collective efforts to improve labour rights, showing that change is not only possible but within our reach.

Tazeen Nuwari Anwar, LLB, LLM and Barrister of England and Wales, taught law for six years at the British School of Law before joining Bangladesh's one of the largest startups, ShopUp.

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