Forced labour and human trafficking for labour exploitation are believed to be extensive in Bangladesh, both within the country and across borders to India, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, Maldives, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Sudan, Mauritius, the United States, and Europe. A significant number Bangladeshis, primarily young men, are recruited for work overseas through fraudulent employment promises but are later subjected to exploitative conditions of labour through forced labour or debt bondage.
The rapid economic growth experienced by Bangladesh since the 1980s has not been accompanied by similar improvements in labour rights protections. As a result, economic growth has created jobs, but with low wages and harsh and dangerous working conditions. Labour exploitation takes many forms in Bangladesh, ranging from underpayment and excessive working hours, to dangerous and abusive working conditions right up to physical and verbal abuse. In some cases, this exploitation can amount to forced labour, human trafficking and slavery. Victims of internal trafficking for labour exploitation have been found in brick kilns, working in the production of garments, in the fishing industry and in the construction sector in Bangladesh. In some instances, children are sold into debt bondage by their parents, while others are induced into labour through fraud and physical coercion.
Industrial disasters and health and safety initiatives in Bangladesh
On April 24, 2013, the world witnessed the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history when the Rana Plaza building collapsed killing 1,134 workers and leaving hundreds severely injured. The Rana Plaza tragedy brought global attention to the reality of labour exploitation and the issues of workplace safety and labour rights in the garment sector in Bangladesh. Significantly, Rana Plaza was not an isolated incident: 5 months earlier Bangladesh’s deadliest factory fire killed 112 at the Tazreen Fashions factory, and according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, factory fires alone killed over 700 workers between 2005 and 2012.
The government’s response to labour exploitation has been significantly shaped by international pressure in the aftermath of Rana Plaza. With support from the ILO, the government of Bangladesh adopted a National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity in the garment Sector (NTPA) in 2013. The Tripartite Plan of Action brought together government actors, workers and employers; and provided the main framework for improving working conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh. While this has led to improvements in health and safety measures and changes to some labour laws, including provisions facilitating union registration and worker representation, NGOs warn that the current focus on physical factory safety is insufficient to address worker safety and well-being. Little has been done to address the poor working conditions and the systematic violation of workers’ rights, in breach of national law, that constitute the norm in many factories in Bangladesh. Such efforts are also yet to be extended to other Bangladeshi industries and exports such as shrimp, fish, tobacco, jute and leather goods.
Two main private sector initiatives have also been developed in an attempt to prevent industrial disasters in the garment sector in Bangladesh: the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The objective of both initiatives is to assess and address the safety issues in Bangladesh’s garment industry through factory inspections, reporting, worker training and empowerment, and making funds available for factory remediation. The Alliance is a five-year programme launched by a number of North-American retailers and brands covering approximately 700 factories. The Accord is a binding agreement adopted by two global unions (IndustriALL, UNI Global), a number of local unions, over 150–predominantly European–international brands and retailers, covering approximately 1,700 factories. Corporate participants in either initiative commit to a minimum membership period and make an annual contribution, based on their dollar volume of exports, to cover the inspection and training programs and operational expenses.
A number of legislative measures have been adopted in the past decade in an effort to curb human trafficking, specifically of Bangladeshi nationals abroad. The Criminal Code criminalises the practice of forced labour (punished with up to 1 year of imprisonment), slavery (attracting a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment) and habitual dealing in slaves (which may be punished with life imprisonment).
In February 2012, Bangladesh introduced a new national anti-trafficking law, the Human Trafficking Deterrence and Suppression Act 2012, which criminalises all forms of human trafficking, and punishes trafficking with 5 years’ to life imprisonment. The Act explicitly criminalises forced labour and debt bondage, and prescribes a penalty ranging from 5 to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine.
Under the Act, the government undertook to set up a specialized Anti-Trafficking Offence Tribunal for the purposes of ensuring effective and speedy trial of trafficking cases, as well as a fund to support the victims of trafficking. However, the government has yet to establish both the tribunal and the fund. Furthermore, the government has not adopted the implementing rules of the 2012 Human Trafficking Deterrence and Suppression Act. Moreover, the enforcement of the Act remains limited, with a total of 146 investigations of cases of sex trafficking and 12 of cases of forced labour in 2014, according to the US Trafficking in Persons Report of 2015, resulting in low conviction rates for human trafficking offences under this Act.
Regulation of recruitment processes
The Human Trafficking Deterrence and Suppression Act does not prohibit the fraudulent recruitment of labour migrants per se, and further requires the recruiter to have known that the workers would be subjected to forced labour. This legal gap was addressed by the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act, 2013, which established an offence of illegal recruitment, covering a number of exploitative practices such as deceptive recruitment, withholding personal documents of migrant workers, and recruiting workers for overseas employment without a license.
Under the Migrants’ Act, no person is permitted to act as a recruiting agent without a licence. The Act also foresees the cancellation or suspension of a recruiter’s license and subsequent forfeiture of the bond money paid by the recruitment agent, for a number of listed reasons, including any violation of the conditions of the licence, or of any of the provisions in the Migrants’ Act or the Rules of Conduct for recruitment agents, or the conviction of a license holder of a criminal offence. The Recruiting Agent´s Conduct and Licence Rules, 2002 set out a number of obligations for recruitment agents, including: the obligation to have a centre for briefing and counseling of migrant workers; to refrain from accepting conditions of employment less favourable than those approved by the government; to provide the migrant worker with a contract and read out the contract to the worker; to ensure that the migrant workers’ salary and working conditions will be respected; and to refrain from charging any extra charges other than those determined by the Government.
The Government’s capacity to monitor and supervise recruiting agencies is very limited, even following complaints by workers. In 2014, the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) cancelled the licenses of four recruitment agencies—the same number as in 2013—an insignificant number considering that there are over 1,000 recruitment agents registered with the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA). Furthermore, the government allows a private entity, the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA), to set the fees, license individual agencies, certify workers for overseas labour, and handle most complaints of Bangladeshi overseas workers.
Recruitment agents often do not comply with their obligation to provide a copy and read out employment contracts to the workers recruited. The ILO points to a lack of effective oversight and enforcement of the law, as the key reason why there seems to be a universal disregard for the upper limit on the cost of migration. As a consequence, Bangladeshi migrants pay some of the highest recruitment fees in the region. This leads many migrants to sell all of their assets or become indebted in order to pay for these fees, rendering them particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.
The Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006 applies both to permanent workers and workers employed through a contractor. Under the Act, a contractor who employs workers is treated as an employer and is liable for any violations of the provisions of the law. The Act provides a number of protections related to the minimum age of employment, minimum wages, working hours, compensation for work-related injuries, wage manipulation, health and safety, the welfare and working environment of employees, and other related issues. Importantly, the Labour Act holds every employer, including contractors and indirect employers, liable for the payment of workers’ wages, and similarly holds principals employing workers through one or several contractors accountable for the payment of any compensation that would have been due, had the workers been employed directly by the principal. Furthermore, the Labour Act establishes that where a labour offence is committed by a corporate body, every agent of that corporation will be held liable for the commission of the offence, unless he or she can prove that the offence was committed without his or her knowledge or consent, or that he or she exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence.
The Labour Act 2006 was amended in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy with the aim of ensuring the safety of workers through strengthened health and safety measures and the promotion of unionization. In the context of these reforms, the labour inspection service has been re-hauled: upgrading the service to a department in January 2014 with positions for 392 new inspectors, and increasing its budget from US$ 900,000 in 2013-14 to US$ 9 million for 2015-2016. According to the ILO, by April 2015, 197 new inspectors had been recruited, taking the total number of labour inspectors in Bangladesh up to 276.
According to Verité, while labour inspectors do visit the sites as required by law, they have been known to accept bribes and deliver strictly positive reports. Under the current legislative framework, inspectors are not legally required to keep the name of complaining workers confidential. This exacerbates the vulnerability of workers, who may choose not to share information regarding their situation with labour inspectors. Moreover, inspectors routinely allow for employers to remedy any violations found instead of filing charges before the Labour Court. The close relationship between government and industry also leads to the weak enforcement of the labour law, especially in a context of widespread corruption. An estimated 10% of Parliamentarians have direct investments in the garment sector, and 60% are involved in the industrial sector or business.Back to top