Evolution of Labour Legislation in Asia
Bangladesh has experienced two changes of rulers in the last thirty years. The British left in 1947 and the Eastern part of Bangladesh became part of Pakistan. Through a liberation struggle, it gained national sovereignty from Pakistan and was established as Bangladesh. But as far as laws and regulations are concerned, the laws left by the former rulers are still followed. Labour law are no exception.
While discussing the evolution of labour law it must not be forgotten that Bangladesh economy is an agro-based economy and according to ILO official report more than 75% of the total workforce is involved in agriculture. The agro-labour are not covered by any labour laws because of the fact that no single employer employs them for a substantial period of time and they have been unable to organise to raise their voices jointly for justice. The agrolabourers are called an unorganised labour force. On the other hand industrial labourers who are called organised labour are only 1.5 million in number as per the claim of trade union leaders in recent days1.
It should also be remembered that industrial labourers are a privileged labour class if their life and employment conditions are compared with those of agrolabourers. Industrial workers have been used as tools in the hands of political parties and as a result no free and independent labour organisation developed that could influence the formulation of labour laws to a great extent. Most trade unions are in some way or other mere affiliated bodies to political parties2. But, inspite of all efforts of intimidation and deception of the labour movement in different situations and occasions the inherent militancy of the working people stands out and the fight for due honour for their contribution to the civilization has been an on going process. That struggle and the potential power of labour movements influence the enactment of labour laws. But in many cases labour laws were passed in the interest of industry owners, as in the case of the 1965 act which imposed a ban on strikes.
Background: British India
The second half of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of various industries in India. During 1875 a few social workers and philanthropists started a movement in Bombay to protest the inhuman working conditions in factories. Especially the condition of women and children workers were intolorable. An appeal was made to the authority to introduce legislation to ameliorate their working conditions. The leader of the movement was Sorabji Shapurji. “Attempts were made as early as the ‘eighties’ to organise the mill hands of Bombay in support of proposals for labour legislation and a Milhands Association was formed”.4 There are records of a strike over wage rates at the Empress Mills at Nagpur in 1877 and also a few other strikes.
The founder of the organised labour movement was M.M. Lokhande, a factory worker. In 1884, he organised an agitation and called for a conference of workers in Bombay to make representation to the newly formulated Factory Commission. On April 24, 1890 a meeting of 10,000 workers put forward demands for limiting the hours of work, provisions for weekly holiday, midday recess, and compensation for injuries sustained during work. The mill owners of Bombay agreed to grant a weekly holiday. Mr Lokhande organised the Bombay Mlli-hands Association and became the first president. He also brought out the first working class newspaper, the Dinabondhu (Friend of the poor). With this background the first known labour law of this subcontinent Industry Act of 1888 came into being. But the regulation was not satisfactory.5
The trade union movement in India declined and was almost forgotten during the period of famine, plague and pestilence and the consequent trade depression that beset the country at the end of nineteenth country6.
In 1904, the cotton trade was revived and many textile factories were established. The workers of these industries had to work for long periods and there was agitation among the workers. During the period between 1904 and 1911 there was a remarkable advancement in the organisation of labour movement. A strike in Bombay Mills, in protest against extension of working hours, a series of strikes in the railways especially in the Eastern Bengal State Railway and in the Government press in Calcutta occured during this period. In this connection mention should be made of the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, which, politicaly, gave a stimulus to the movement of working people7. The six day political mass strike in Bombay in 1908 in protest of Bal Gangdhar Tilak’s punishment for sedition was the climax of labour movement. In 1905 the Working Men’s Institution was formulated under the initiative of Bhrama Samaj. While the labour movement in India was in its full swing something happened in United Kingdom itself. “Longer hours of work in an Indian factory, with the proverbially low wages meant severe competition to British industry at home. This had the effect of lowering the prices of goods, resulting in cut in wages of the British and other foreign workers. The outcome was the lowering of their standards of living and the dwindling of the bank balance of the British and other foreign industrialists who mainly owned the industries in U.K. It was, therefore, the protests of the foreign vested interests and not so much the cries of the Indian workers that led in 1911, to the passing of legislation, restricting the daily hours of work in textile Mills to twelve for adults and six for children8”.
“Recognition by the community of the right to combine, organise for collective action and withhold labour, was a long and painful process every where; perhaps, less so in india9.” “After this (1911 Act) many labour laws were passed almost regularly.” How far these statements are correct? Were labour laws like the workmen’s compensation Act of 1923, The Mines Act of 1923 or Trade Union Act of 1926 passed because of the mercy of the British Government or did the labour movement and workers’ struggle play their role in achieving these?”.
In 1914, Anusuyaben Sarabhi, daughter of a mill agent of Ahemedabad started working among textile workers and the poorer section and became a labour leader in the true sense of the term. In 1917, the workers of Ahemedabad Mills started a strike for salary increase. Ms. Anusuyaben provided leadership for the strike which was a successful one. The first regular labour union in Ahemedabad was established in 1920. This was followed by formation of other craft unions.11 The year 1920 was also marked by another significant landmark of labour movement and that was the formation of All India Trade Union Congress.12
However, according to Alam Jaglul, the first well organised trade union was that of Bakingham and Karnataka Mills under the leadership of B.P. Wadia, which was named as Madras Labour Union. This was formulated in the year of 1918.13
Another important incident of this period, which made a very positive contribution to labour movement was the formation of International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the year of 1919. India was one of the founding members of ILO.
Although the trade union organisations had their beginning in 1918-1919 the conditions of industrial labour continued to be very unsatisfactory. Under the Government of India Act of 1919 the workers got the chance to send their representative to Provincial Legislature through nomination.
As a result of the recommendation of Royal commission some labour legislation came into being. There was a thorough revision of the Factories Act in 1922. An act was also passed to repeal the workers Breach of Contract Act, and the provisions of a similar kind in the penal code. The Mines Act was also revised in 1923. In the same year, the Workmens Compensation Act was enacted. Most important of all the trade unions Act was passed in 1926. This Act gave encouragement to the formation of new trade unions and there was support of trade union activities in all industrial centres in the country as a result of the legislation.14
Bengal experienced the first local labour movement in the year of 1921. The Jute Mills labour of Calcutta and adjacent area started a movement against illegal termination, inhuman working conditions and torture by European owners. The torture by European owners of jute mill workers surpassed the torture of Indigo planters in all respects15. This was followed by a series of movements till the Act of 1929 was passed. During this eight-year period 201 strikes were held in the jute mills of Bengal16.
These early events provided a background for labour movement and development of labour laws in present Bangladesh. Otherwise the then East Bengal has very little contribution to labour movements and thus its participation in the process of evolution in labour law was very limited. This happened due to various factors and the most important one was, there was no organised labour sector save Eastern Bengal Railway at that moment. Calcutta flourished as a business and industrial centre. Business and commerce of the then East Bengal was confined to some small trade houses of raw jute, rice and horticulture products (bettle nuts, coconuts, etc.).17
The only sector that was developing during end of the thirties was the jute trade and the cotton mills. A new manually operated jute belling press was established at that time18.
Pakistan came into being in August the 14th 1947. During the Pakistan movement many commitments were made for the change of the lot of working people. However, the inherited Industrial Dispute Act of 1947 remained valid for long. This act was successively amended in 1956-57.
The following Acts were partially or fully implemented in the then East Pakistan. The reason for touching them is, none of them affected the labour-force of present Bangladesh when they were enacted or vice versa.
1. Act of 1929 Act on Trade Dispute settlement
2. Act of 1934 Dock labour Act
3. Act of 1936 Act on payment of wages
4. Act of 1938 Act on Responsibilities of Mill owners
5. Act of 1939 Act on Maternity Benefit
6. Act of 1947 Act on Industrial Dispute Settlement
The first Trade Union Federation of Eastern Pakistan* was formulated on 28th September, 1947. In 1959 the All Pakistan Federation of labour came into being. It had two constituents, i.e. West Pakistan Federation of Labour and East Pakistan Federation of Labour19.
(* First President of the federation was Dr. A.M. Malik while the first General Secretary was Mr. Fajz Ahmed. The federation was a representative one.)
The period of 1958 to 1968 was a period of industrialisation. The main effort for industrialization was taken by Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation. As the industrial section was developed the total number of organised labour was also growing. On the one hand, in face of the gradually increasing labour demands, the Government was trying to satisfy them with new or amended regulation, on the other hand, the Government was trying to safeguard the interest of industrialists. Most of these industrialists were from West Pakistan, a few from European countries and fewer Bangladeshi people who joined the race at mid sixties. 44 out of 77 jute mills in East Pakistan were owned by the Pakistanis. They also followed a divide and rule policy among labourers. In Adamjee Jute Mills of Narayangonj, Dhaka the Pakistani employers prefered to employ 50% Bengali and 50% Urdu speaking workers. This resulted in a big slaughter in the mills in early ‘60s and about 700 people, most of them Bengalis e were killed20.
Till 1960 the labour force of Khulna jute industries was dominated by people from Orissa province.21 These people were liked by the Pakistani employers. The Government machinery which was dominated by Pakistan was always in favour of employers. Still the struggle went on; during the period 1948 to 1970 a total number of 978 strikes took place in the then East Pakistan. In the year of 1964 only, labour agitation took place in 72 Industries22. All of these agitations took place in order to press home the demands of workers.
In the year 1951 (August 22) a Tripartite agreement was concluded between Chittagong Mercantile Employees Association and the Employers Association of East Pakistan (Representative of Employers). One significant achievement of this agreement was the provision of Dearness Allowances for employees which became a common practice later on.
On August 15, 1955 the first labour policy and programme was declared. This policy did not recognise the right of labour to strike. Rather it stressed on the principle of conciliation and adjudication of dispute between employer and employee. But this was not accepted by labour leaders and as a result labour unrest increased. In the year 1957 alone 700,000 man days were lost in organized sector due to labour unrest. In the same year the Minimum Wage Act was passed to face the labour unrest. But the political situation of that time was not in favour of what the Act was aimed at; “With growing demand of workers another labour policy was declared in February 1559 with a revision of first labour policy”23. But this also did not accept the right to strike. The only advancement was, more sophisticated ways of conciliation and adjudication. In the meantime the trade union Act of 1926 was amended several times and to certain restrictions were withdrawn from the right to organise. In the year 1965 again the Trade Unions Act and Industrial Disputes Act were declared. The Industrial Disputes Act technically guaranteed right to strike and lock-out. Under this act it was stated that if there is no recognised Trade Union in an enterprise, seven worker together could raise a dispute. But according to labour leaders these laws were in breach of ILO convention No. 87 and 98 (Right to organise for collective bargaining and Right to strike respectively24).
In late 1966 a remarkable incident took place. The workers of Dada Match d Company of Khulna went on strike as all negotiation failed. The owner of the e company, a Pakistani group of Industries sued the trade union. When the litigation was sent to the High Court, the honourable court opined in 1976 that as e all ways of negotiation were exhausted the strike was legal according to the law e of the land. This gave a legal footing for strikes25.
With the outbreak of a political upheaval in 1969, the Trade Union Act, 1965 and the Labour Disputes Act, 1965 were merged together and the new law in g the name of Industrial Relations Ordinance came into being, in conformity with the law a labour policy was also declared during the same period, wherein right to organise and right to strike and lock-out received recoglition in the law for practical purposes26.
However, after the promulgation of military rule by Yahia Khan all sorts of movements were brutally stopped and labour movement was not an exception. In the next years (70 and 71) there was nothing else, the whole of Bangladesh had only one entity and the whole struggle became a struggle of survival with the new entity. The nation owes a lot to the workers, who in a great number sacrificed their lives for freedom.
Bangladesh become independent in 1971. The first labour policy was declared in 1972. At that time important industries were nationalised as the Government was following a left-oriented policy. The policy recommended that in public sectors, matters other than wages should be settled through conciliation, arbitration, joint consultation and adjudication. But the policy was shelved because of the wide-spread agitation of the workers. “The hope of sharing the benefit of independence did not become true for the workers of Bangladesh27”. The proposal of Tripartite Management Board for the management of industries was not a welcome one as most labourers did not understand what it meant.
In the year 1973 the right to strike and lock-out, as guaranteed in the Act of 1969 was prohibited. According to this regulation Industrial Workers Wage Commission and National Pay Commission were set up for nationalised Industries.
As told earlier government wanted to follow a left oriented economic policy and there was an attempt to establish Sramik League the labour front of Awami League in the management. So with the combination of these two regulations a situation was created where no more trade unions could get registered and Sramik League leaders could have a say in management. The Sramik League took the Strategy of wiping out opposition28.
During this period a section of Sramik League workers were formulated into “Red Army” to create a state of terror for other trade unions. The “Army” was formally inangurated by Shaikh Mujib.
In 1975 on the eve of formation of Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awamileague (The reformed Awami league under the leadership of SK. Mujibur Rahman) popularly known as BAKSHAL as a step of establishing one party rule, yet another regulation came. This was nothing but old wine in a new bottle. A law passed in 1974 gave some financial benefits to the workers29.
After the killing of Shaikh Mujib with the promulgation of military rule all rights of labour force were withdrawn. By this time the nation experienced economic depression and famine of 1974. Pricehike was beyond any control and the labour sector was agitated. In the year 1977 (July 20th) the ban on the registration of trade unions was lifted. The effect was an increase in the number of trade unions. In 1971 there were 1160 registered trade unions; in 1981 the number more than tripled i.e. 3621. Over the same period of time the total number of members to trade unions were more than one million and 1.9 million respectively. The number of enterprises rose by about 26%30.
In March 1980 a labour policy was announced which among other things reiterated the same policy of 1972 but in a rather different language. It is quite clear that there should be no collective bargaining on items covered in National Pay and Industrial Workers Wages commission and Productivity Commission in Public sector, while the process of collective bargaining was left open in the private sector.
The most important feature of the 1980 labour policy was that is restored the right to strike but the process for it was made cumbersome31. After the declaration of Military rule in March 1982 the rights of workers to strike or to organise for collective bargaining was suspended and in March 1982 a new labour policy was declared. The right of collective bargaining and the right to strike was withheld. The present Government is following the policy of putting all important industries into private sector. The June 83 ILO meeting has expressed its concern on violation of convention Nos. 87 and 98.
The law is helping the industrialists at the cost of poor labours. The workers of denationalised industries and new enterprises were the worst sufferers32. The recent boom of garment industries both under joint venture and national capital took place because of availability of cheap labour here. These labourers could not press home their demands as they have no unions and labour agitation is not permitted by law.
Very recently the labour leaders of a few garment industries and one five star hotel were terminated for “offence” of forming labour unions33. The government has established a Free Trade Zone (FTZ) and the availability of cheap labour could be an attraction for foreign investors. Fractionalism, inter-union and intra-union rivalry at plant, industry and national level along with the play of vested interest in and outside Government machinery always worked as a hindrance for passing of progressive labour laws.
THE UNORGANISED SECTOR
The Agro-labourers, labourers of fishing industry, traditional craftsmen and those of hotels and small workshops constitute the unorganised sector at present. These labourers are not covered by any labour law. Various reasons are put forward for the unprotected situation of these labourers. The following are important ones applicable for each group or groups together:
— The job is not permanent in nature.
— There is no common employer for a number of labourers.
— These labourers do different types of work and hence it is difficult to classify their skill.
But cautious analysis will prove none of these are valid reasons. For example, though they have no common employer they can have a fixed minimum wage34.
However, from British period these unorganised sector fought a gallant fight for the restoration of their rights. It should be mentioned in early British period there were only agro-labourers, labourers of different cottage industries and craftsmen of different categories. As the agro-labourers formed the vast majority, it was mainly the agro-labourers and peasants of Bengal who almost continuously fought bloody battles with the British colonial power.
As soon as the British occupied Bengal, they wanted to create a semiruler class from among the natives who will help them in ruling the country.
The result was the notorious permanent settlement Act of 1793. By this act all lad became the property of land - lords called Zamindars and peasants became agro-labourers in their own land. From the Ownership point of view the half share of crop given to the peasant became their wage for cultivation and main tanence of Zamindars land. The rent paid to Zamindar by peasant meant cost of total output minus the cost of labour, Karl Marx has rightly described, “By a stroke of a pen Bengal Zamindars, who had been collector of revenue, were turned into hereditary owners35.” Zamindars used to torture the peasants for more and more money. All peasants within the area of Zamindary were the Zamindar’s labour and were forced to do Zamindars works without any wage. The Zamindar created their own army called lathials.
But these tortures and use of forced labour did not go unchallenged. Peasants used to refuse to do Zamindars work, though the fear of lathials was present. East India company came in help of their local collaborators and Regulation Act No. VII was enacted in 1799. This act empowered Zamindars to put people in their personal prison.
The first sign of united protest from the peasants side was seen in early nineteenth century. Tortured and exploited people united themselves as gangs of robbers who used to loot the Zaminders and their employees36. The name of some gang leaders still can be heard in local tales.
To face the increasing peasant violence more power was given to the Zamindars in 1819 by Act No. VIII. The Zamindar was empowered to oust a peasant from his house and land and could take away his household property. But the peasants continued their violent protest.
In the beginning of nineteenth century Indigo business became a profitable business due to its high demand in the cotton industries of England. Some British planters started Indigo cultivation in southern part of Bengal. Bengal saw another spell of torture and use of force labour and subsequent Indigo movement, in 1860s. The situation was so tense that Lord Canning wrote ".... a shot fired in anger or fear by one foolish planter, might put every factory in lower Bengal in flames37."At last the Indigo Act (1864) was enacted baring use of forced labour in Indigo plantation.
Among peasant movements and revolutions of Bengal the most famous were:—
Sherpur Revolution (1825 and 1833)
Wohabi Movement (1831)
The Great Revolution (1857) also, started from Bengal.
However, in 1885 the Government put some restriction on the power of Zamindars by Bengal Tenancy Act38.
The most important peasant movement of 20th Century was Tebbaga Movement (one third share of crop to Zaminder), of 1946. Usually the Zaminder was entitled to get two thirds of the crop. The peasants wanted to give them one third. The movement became popular in North Bengal. It took the form of violent fight in which the lathials of Zamindars and Police were on one side and peasants on the other. The movement was severely dealt with. Hundreds of peasants were killed or injured. As a result of this movement the then Muslim League Government of East Bengal wanted to pass a bill to abolish Zamindari system. The bill was vigorously protested by a part of Muslim League Leaders39. At last in the year of 1950 Zamindari system was abolished from the then East Pakistan.
One thing should be remembered, though these peasants became agro-labour by the permanent settlement Act, by their mind and temperament they did not become “have-not” labourers and hence all of these movements were the movements to get back the control over land. This was not a movement of labourers for their right as labour.
During early Pakistan period nothing really happened to the labourers of Un-organised section. During this period these labourers gained this “have-not” class character, a class totally dependent on the sale of labour. In 1956 a law was passed which had provisions for leave and time limitation for employees of shops.
By the end of Pakistan period the question of agro-labour became a topic of discussion. Various political parties opened an agro-labour front. After the emergence of Bangladesh the agro-labour and the landless people became a focal point. This was partially because of the fact that this growing problem could no more be neglected and partially because of the fact that western economists were putting emphasis on distribution side of the economy. A number of non-government agencies started working to organise these unorganised labourers. Some of them are in the process of opening a political front40. The Communist Party of Bangladesh has opened its agro-labour front. They are most active in organising landless labourers41.
The very recent report of land reform committee has made suggestion for minimum wage of agro-labourers42. The ensuing ordinance on land reform will determine minimum wage of agro-labour43. But it is to be noted even the members of land reform committee could not reach any unanimous decision.44
CIIRONOLOCYICAL TABLE OF LABOUR LAWS OF BANGLADESH
1. Khan Anisuddin G.S. Bangladesh Free Trade Union Congress, Interview Dt. 11/6/83.
2. Alam Iajlul: Bichitra; 22nd July 1983, Article on labour unrest, p. 27.
3. Office of; Bangladesh Jute Beling Workers Union, personal contact.
4. Report of the Royal Commission of Labour in India, 1931, p. 317.
5. Khan A.A. Labour and Industrial Law, Students Edition, p. 4.
6. Khan Anisuddin-Saminer paper presented on Bangladesh labour unity Day, p. 5.
7. Khan A.A. Labour and Industrial Law, students Edition, p. 4.
8. Khan Anisuddin-Saminer paper Op. p. 4.
9. Report of the National Commission on Labour 1969, p. 227.
10. Khan A.A. Op. p. 5.
11. Ramnujam. G-Story of Indian Labour; p. 1011, p. 32.
12. Alam Jaglul-Bichitra, Op.
14. Ramanujam, G.-Op pp. 32-3 3.
15. The Ganabani, July, 1928.
16. Chamanlad. D; Colee, The story of Labour and Capital in India; Vol. 0, p. 39.
17. Hossain, Akram — The Monthly Muhammadi — April 1943, p. 16.
18. Rashid M — the Dilruba Sept. 1948, p. 22.
19. Ahmemmed Kamruddin on extract from pp. 11-14. Labour Movement in East Pakistan.
20. Rahman Khalilur, President, Daulatpur Jute Belling Workers Union, Interview with the writer.
21. Weekly Bichitra July 22nd 1983, p. 28.
22. Fr Timm, National Commission for Justice and Peace; personal contact.
23. Office of, Khulna National Labour Party, personal contact.
24. According to i) Khan, Anisuddin, Op
ii) Rahman Khalilur.
25. Khan, Anisuddin, Op. personal contact: — Old records of Bangladesh High Court, case records of year 1966, 67, 68.
26. Official Source of Trade Union Centre Contact with, Islam R. 6/5/83.
27. Alamgir Jaglul — Op. Cit., p. 29.
28. Sufian Abu, Secretary Sramik League, Daulatpur, speech after massive killing of opposition labour leaders, 1969.
29. Act No. 10 of 1974.
30. Registrar of Trade Union Office.
31. Written Interview of Mazhar Hossain, Trade Union Centre.
32. Hiru, Terminated worker of Ajax Jute Mills Ltd. — Interview.
33. The Daily Shangbad Aug. 13-16 and May 8th, 1983.
34. Uddin, Kamal, Bangladesh Bhumihum Samity, personal contact.
35. Marx, Karl — Notes on Indian History; p. 116.
36. Datt, R.C. — Pesantry of Bengal, Prefase; p. VIII.
37. Buckland, E.C. — Bengal under the lieutenant governers Vol. 1, pp. 191-92.
38. Umar, Badaruddin, Bangladeshi Peasant under Permanent Settlement Act, p. 43.
39. Weekly, The Millat, 2nd year 18 edition, April 25, 1947.
40. Nijera Kori, Association for Social Advancement.
41. Bangladesh Agro-labour Society.
42. The Daily Shangbad, Dated 15.4.83.
43. The Daily Ittegaq, dated 21.3.83.
44. The New Nation, Daily, 18.10.83.