Labour rights or workers' rights are a set of rights that have acquired legal ramifications because of their clear association with human rights as understood in international law. They relate to the relations between workers and their employers, usually obtained under labour and employment law. In general, these rights' debates have to do with negotiating workers' pay, benefits and safe working conditions. One of the most central of these rights is the right to create unions and through such a process take advantage of collective bargaining and subsequent actions associated with increase in their members' wages or in bringing about changes in their working situation. Labour rights from this point of view are expected to facilitate the process whereby workers have a democratic voice in decision and policy making. This is expected to help workers to attain the dignity that they deserve.
Labour rights, it may be noted, are a relatively new addition to the modern corpus of human rights. Economists have identified the modern concept of labour rights dating back to the 19th century after the creation of labour unions following the gradual growth of industrialisation. Karl Marx is remembered as one of the earliest and most prominent advocates for workers rights. His philosophy and economic theory focused on labour issues and advocated his concept of socialism on the paradigm where a society would be ruled by the workers. Subsequently, more moderate social democrats supported worker's interests as well. More recent workers rights advocacy activists have focused on the particular role -- exploitation and needs of women workers, and of increasingly mobile global flows of casual service or guest workers. This dynamics eventually led to the formation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1919 as part of the League of Nations aimed at protecting worker's rights. The ILO was later integrated into the United Nations which then took the lead to back workers' rights by incorporating workers' rights into two Articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This subsequently became the basis of Articles 6 to 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
In principle, emphasis was given to the following factors that everyone has -- (a) the right to work and to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment; (b) the right to equal pay for equal work; (c) the right to just remuneration worthy of human dignity; (d) the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests and (e) the right to rest and leisure including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
These factors are generally held as the core labour standards and are "widely recognised to be universally applicable, regardless of whether the relevant conventions have been ratified, the level of development of a country or cultural values. These standards are composed of qualitative, not quantitative standards and don't establish a particular level of working conditions, wages or health and safety standards. They are not intended to undermine the comparative advantage that developing countries may hold. Core labour standards are consequently important human rights and are recognised as such through other widely ratified international human rights instruments including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC), the most widely ratified human rights treaty with 193 parties, and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights ICCPR with 160 parties. Very few ILO member countries have ratified all of these Conventions due to domestic constraints.
Several organisations on a periodic basis regularly release studies not only on conditions that have been identified as using child labour and industries using or funded by human trafficking but also on different aspects related to the upholding of the rights of workers-- both in domestic workplace conditions as well as in the industrial sector.
This equation, most unfortunately, has another dimension which has become very difficult to address satisfactorily. This pertains to illegal immigrants who cannot complain to the authorities about underpayment and mistreatment as they would be deported. It is almost similar to a drop of ink falling into a cup of milk and spoiling the entire thing.
The Human Rights Watch and some other European civil rights activists have in this regard drawn world attention in the recent past to several unacceptable circumstances prevailing in several countries, particularly in the Middle East. It has been pointed out that domestic workers are brought to some of the countries in the Middle East under what is dubbed Kafala system -- an arrangement in which migrants' right to work, to change jobs, and to go home is entirely dependent upon the employers who sponsor their entry into the country. The dependency created by the Kafala system, as well as the lack of adequate legal protections, leaves domestic aides vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Human rights activists have received reports of domestic helps working long hours of unpaid overtime -- in extreme cases, 21 hours per day, and many have also said that their wages had been withheld. Others had been confined to their employers' houses, or deprived of food or rest. There have also been reports of physical or sexual abuse. Many have also drawn attention to having their passports confiscated, despite this being unlawful under international law. The Human Rights Watch has in this regard commented that some of the reported situations "may amount to slavery under international law. Several workers said their employers seemed to think they had purchased them."
My attention in this respect was drawn to a report published by the Brussels-based organisation International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on June 13. During my tenure as Bangladesh Ambassador to the European Union and Belgium, I had the opportunity to interact very closely with this organisation. It is the world's largest trade union federation and represents 181 million workers through its 340 affiliated organisations within 163 countries and territories. Observations made by the ITUC carries a lot of weight, particularly in Western Europe, our main export destination.
It was disappointing to find out that Bangladesh had secured a rating of 5 in the ITUC Global Rights Index 2017. This symbolically represents that workers in our country have very little guarantee of rights. It was interesting to also note that Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, the Philippines, Colombia, Kazakhstan, South Korea and Turkey shared the platform with Bangladesh. The report referred to the bad condition of migrant workers, particularly in Qatar. It said workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh have been working for days without any rest, to upgrade infrastructure ahead of the 2022 Football World Cup that is expected to be held in that country.
The ITUC's report highlighted the Ashulia labour unrest of last year. It assumed greater significance as it was published very soon after the ILO's observations that appeared a few days back. ILO has now given us a deadline of November before they consider taking any harsh action against Bangladesh.
Both reports underlined that more needs to be done to improve workplace safety and labour rights in Bangladesh. One needs to focus on this with greater attention given the fact that we have to soon enter into negotiations with the European Union regarding G Plus facility that will eventually replace the existing Everything But Arms (EBA -- that guarantees duty-free and quota-free access) once we emerge out of the LDC category. This is a sensitive area that will also be subject of scrutiny in our future trade relations with the United Kingdom after they have completed BREXIT. Such remarks about our labour standards might also be exploited by the AFL-CIO from the USA.
Commenting on this, our media pointed out that only 10 per cent of Bangladesh's more than 4,500 garment factories have registered unions. Activists have also commented that this situation is partially due to the labour law that requires "an unreasonably high 30 per cent of workers to agree to form a Union and mandates excessive registration procedures".
We know that our Ministry of Labour and Employment, the Ministry of Industries and our Ministry of Commerce are actively engaged in identifying the existing challenges within the matrix. Efforts are underway to find satisfactory solutions. However, we are running out of time. This is something that needs to be understood by all. There is the required political will on the part of the government. However, pro-active engagement needs to be shared responsibly by all the principal actors.
The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.