Bangladesh should ratify the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention 190, otherwise known as "Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work," in a speedy manner to curb such abuse at workplaces, especially to protect women workers.
Addressing a national dialogue on "Gender based violence and harassment in the world of work: Evaluating the laws in Bangladesh in light of the mandates of ILO Convention 190," speakers said the existing labour laws do not accurately define sexual harassment or violence.
Moreover, the country has not been seeing satisfactory results in preventing sexual harassment at workplaces due to a lack of enforcement of existing laws, they added.
ILO Convention 190 is the first international treaty to recognise the right of everyone to a workplace free from violence and harassment, including gender-based abuses. The ILO adopted the convention in June 2019, and it came into effect on 25 June 2021. Six countries have ratified the convention till date.
Karmojibi Nari and Terre des Hommes Italia in Bangladesh jointly organised the national dialogue at CIRDAP auditorium on Thursday, where RMG factory owners, representatives of workers' organisations, ILO and other development agencies spoke on the subject.
In 2019 Karmojibi Nari undertook a study, "Women-friendly and safe working environment in RMG factories", in which 3,014 women workers from 327 readymade garment factories in Bangladesh took part, says a press release issued by the organisers.
During the survey, 72% of the women workers reported verbal harassment, while 62% reported psychological harassment. Besides, 21% of the women reported physical harassment and 14% reported sexual harassment.
On the basis of the existing situation in the institutional sector, Karmojibi Nari has drawn the conclusion that women in non-institutional sectors are facing far more harassment, as Bangladesh is yet to develop a legal framework to protect such workers.
NGOs and stakeholders point out that despite the violence and with harassment and inequality against women workers being an ongoing issue, such incidents more often than not do not see the light of day. Many women fear losing their jobs if they speak out against such abuses.
This situation has worsened amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and now is the crucial time for the authorities concerned to provide stronger legal protection to women at workplaces against all types of harassment, the press release said.
'Cultivate a culture of trust, instead of fear'
Speaking at the national dialogue, Socialist Workers Front President Razequzzaman Ratan said, "We must work on cultivating a culture of trust instead of fear. We should ratify ILO Convention 190 as soon as possible."
Lawmaker Shirin Akhter said, "The related government ministries and divisions should work together with the workers to help them negotiate their demands."
Terre des Hommes Italia's Country Representative Iole Valentina Lucchese said, "Many workers have lost their jobs amid the pandemic. In such a situation, they are reluctant to report [any incidents of harassment] for fear of losing their jobs."
Ratifying ILO Convention 190 is a logical step towards protecting these workers, she added.
'Fair prices for exports, an issue that remains ignored'
Speaking as the chief guest, Mujibul Haque Chunnu, president of the parliamentary standing committee on labour and employment ministry, said, "The international community, including Europe, speaks a lot about workers' safety and rights, but ignores the issue of fair prices for exports."
Addressing the representatives from Europe, he continued, "When negotiating prices, you [buyers] say this is competitive pricing. Brand buyers lower prices instead of increasing them. This is why factory owners are lowering workers' benefits.
"If you continue to lower prices [for exports], how will we improve the workers' quality of life? How will we keep them well? Lowering prices does not affect the owners, it affects the workers."
Chunnu, a former labour and employment minister, went on, "Everyone – including Europe – talks big, but when it comes to money, they are all the same. When an exporter gets a good price but does not pay fair wages to his workers, we ask him for clarifications on the matter.
"But when that same exporter reveals his costs, we cannot say anything anymore. We always make a serious effort to follow conditions set by you [the international community], and make amendments to our labour laws. But you do not pay us fair prices [for our exports]."
Md Rezaul Haque, additional secretary at the Ministry of Labour and Employment; Khadija Khondker, programme officer at the ILO; Hans Lambrecht, acting head of cooperation at the European Union delegation to Bangladesh; and Sunzida Sultana, executive director (in-charge) at Karmojibi Nari, also spoke on the occasion, among others.