Asia - Pacific

Bangladesh women workers lack workplace protections

On May Day, rights activists say Bangladesh lacks workplace nursing facilities, protection against dismissals

SM Najmus Sakib   | 01.05.2022
Bangladesh women workers lack workplace protections File Photo

DHAKA, Bangladesh

Even as 80% of the 4 million workers in Bangladesh’s famed ready-made garment industry comprise women, they lack facilities to nurse babies and maternity benefits, rights activists say.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency coinciding with International Workers' Day, or May Day, which is being observed on Sunday, Shirin, a worker, said she had to quit her job as a garment factory in the Mirpur area of Dhaka did not allow her to avail maternity leave.

“I had to work non-stop for eight months during my pregnancy period ... I couldn’t avail maternity leave or leave benefits under the country’s labor law,” she said.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency, Bangladeshi working women have limited access to nursing facilities and there is no explicit protection for women against dismissals. The ILO has described not giving maternity leave and limiting night work for women as “discriminatory.”

The Bangladeshi Labour Act of 2006 allows female employees 120 days of leave with full benefits, but many employers do not comply with the provision, say rights activists.

“It was almost unbearable to meet daily work targets in such a condition. But I had to endure otherwise I would be fired. Later, I quit the job to take care of my baby,” said Shirin.

Rabeya (not real name), a worker at a sweater factory and also a union leader, said she was not given overtime payment while being forced to work extra to meet targets.

“Last month, the office management incorporated maternity leave and leave benefits of 25,000 takas ($290) instead of 5,000 takas ($58) after agitation by women workers,” she said.

Both these workers live in poorly maintained slums and share some basic living facilities like a kitchen and toilet.

Living in a single room along with four adult family members, Rabeya said she could not afford another room for her adult nine-grade school girl.

She earns about 13,000 takas ($150), which were nearly 18,000 takas ($210) before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country’s garment sector.

No restrooms, comfort spaces

Sunzida Sultana, executive director and research coordinator of Karmojibi Nari (Working Women), a local gender rights organization, said employers removed the facility of restrooms and comfort working spaces for pregnant workers.

“Pregnant workers have to comply with increased work pressure or daily targets like a normal worker, which is a violation of law to support pregnant women in the workplace," she said. "Our study shows pregnant workers at RMG factories drink less water during work hours to avoid going to the toilet. But it adversely affects pregnant mothers and their upcoming baby."

Improvement in worker’s safety

Md. Mohiuddin Rubel, director of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), claimed the country has improved workers' safety in the ready-made garment sector.

“We have made tremendous improvements to job security and safety of our women workers. We publicly share our workers’ safety compliance, which no other garment exporter country follows,” he said.

He added that improving working conditions for women is a continuous and gradual process.

Rubel, however, admitted that the workers’ living conditions are not satisfactory in comparison to the EU, US, or China.

Sultana also believes that Bangladesh has made a major improvement in labor rights, despite the challenges.

“Employers now cannot terminate any worker immediately or on the owner's whim," she said. "However, we cannot say things have completely changed, we still see terminations, or situations when pregnant workers leave jobs on their own."

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