It is true that the labour movement started in Europe during the industrial revolution. Previously, the idea faced great resistance. However, the labour movement was active in the early to mid-nineteenth century and various labour parties and trade unions were formed throughout the industrialised world. The labour movement has a very long past in this region, though industrialisation took place very late in Bangladesh. The beginning of labour agitation in the Indian sub-continent was in Bengal.
In 1860, there was a strong protest against the inhuman working conditions and hardship of cultivation workers. A further organised form of trade union activities in this region was started thereafter. Unfortunately, illiteracy and disunity among workers, the negative attitude of employers and unnecessary politicization hampered trade union growth in Bangladesh. This article made an attempt to analyse the historical context as well as the plight of the industrial workers and trade unions and their impact on the overall productivity of the workers in Bangladesh.
The trade union movement in Bangladesh has a very long history. The beginning of labour agitation in India was in Bengal. In 1860 in Bengal a noted dramatics and social reformer Dinbandhu Mitra along with some of his journalist friends protested the inhuman working conditions and hardship of cultivation workers. He wrote a drama title Nil Darpan. A drama about slave like behavior to worker by the cultivator Nil. This drama had a great impact in the minds of people and the social elite. People realized the deplorable and inhuman conditions of workers. This was beginning of the labour movement.
Some years latter, in 1875 Sarobji Shapuri in Bombay made a protest against poor working conditions and brought this to the notice of the Secretary of State for India. The first Factory Commission was, thereafter, appointed in 1875 and as a result the Factories Act,1881 was enacted. But this Act did not reflect the aspirations of workers. There was no provision for child labour and women workers. Another Factory Commission was appointed in 1884. In the same year a conference of the Bombay (presently Mumbai) factory workers organised by N.M. Lokhande had demanded a complete day of rest on Sunday, half an hour recess each working day, working hours between 6.30 a.m. and sunset, the payment of wages not later than 15th of the month, and compensation for injuries.
In 1889, in Bombay, workers from spinning and weaving mills demanded Sunday as a holiday, regularity in the payment of wages, and adequate compensation in cases of accidents. But trade union activities in this region of the Indian sub-continent started in the 18th century.
The trade union movement then was generally led by philanthropists and social reformers who organised workers and protected them against inhuman working conditions. One of them was Anusuyaben Sarabhai. She was daughter of a mill agent in Ahmedabad. She had visited England and seen for herself trade union activities there. After returning to India in 1914, she began working among textile workers and poorer sections of the society in Ahmedabad.
She established schools and welfare centres and worked for the betterment of the workers and poor people. In 1917, the workers of Ahmedabad mills resorted to a strike to demand an increase in wages. Anusuyaben was among the leadership in that strike. Ahmedabad textile workers organised themselves in a trade union under her leadership on December 4, 1917. it is notable that the Russian socialist revolution also influenced Indian working people.
The strike was a success and workers got a wage increase. The first regular Union was formed in Ahmedabad in 1920 for the Trestle Department Workers. This was followed by different trade- or craft-based Unions. The same year another trade union was formed in Madras with the name of Madras Labour Union. This was formed by B.P. Wadia under the leadership and guidance of Dr. Mrs. Annie Besant. But the growth of the trade union movement gained momentum at the end of the First World War. Industry and trade had grown following the War. Many trade unions were formed throughout India. There were a number of strikes during 1919 to 1922. The Russian Bolshevik Revolution created a reaction in India, as it did elsewhere.
The Bolshevik triumph demonstrated that an organised working-class movement could seize state power. The communist movement in India organised the workers in trade unions with as objectives: first, to secure immediate goals such as higher salaries and better working conditions; and ultimate goal to build a long-range movement that would topple the bourgeois state and free India from British rule. This speeded up the pace of the trade union movement. In 1920 the All-India Trade Union Congress was formed. This was initiated by forces of different ideology. The communist and also nationalist forces were there.
Later, after the independence of India, the labour leader associated with the National Congress Party left AITUC and formed the Indian National Trade Union Congress in 1947. The colonial ruler finally introduced the Indian Trade Union Act, 1926. Before that the Indian workers were denied the fundamental rights of freedom of association. The Indian Trade Union act, 1926 was enacted with a view “to provide for the registration of Trade Unions and in certain respects to define the law relating to registered trade unions.” The right to strike and lock-out were ultimately recognised in India indirectly under the provisions of the Indian Trade Dispute Act, 1929.
The act provided for an ad-hoc Conciliation Board and Court of Inquiry for the settlement of trade disputes. The Act prohibited strikes and lock-outs in public utility services and general strikes affecting the community as a whole. In Pakistan era there were three main national centres in the then East Pakistan: the East Pakistan Federation of Labour, the Mazdoor Federation and the communist-led Purbo Pakistan Sramik Federation. Beside these central federations, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP)-led Chotkal Sramik Federation had a great and significant role in organising jute mill workers. The jute mill workers strikes in 1964 and 1967 were launched by this industrial federation.
In the March 1971 civil disobedience movement against the Pakistani Military rulers, trade unions had played an important role. They virtually took over management of industry and executed the orders they received from Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
After the independence of Bangladesh, the government had to take over the industries and establishments that were abandoned when the owners left Bangladesh for Pakistan. After independence the ownership structure in the industrial sector was: Pakistani Private Ownership: 47% EPIDC: 34% Bangladeshi Owners: 18% Foreign Owners: 1% Abandoned industries and EPIDC. Together this was 81% and was taken over in March, 1972 of which 77% were kept nationalised and the remaining 4% were offered for sale.
These taken-over industries were put under different sector corporations.
Furthermore Jute, Textile, Sugar and Financial Institutions and big industries were nationalised. Suddenly trade unions found they had to play a big role to manage and run the industries and establishments in absence of owners and managers, which they were not prepared for. For time being they became managers of many industries and establishments. Many self-seekers had also joined trade unions to seek personal gain. In 1972, Bangladesh adopted the Industrial Relations Ordinance 1969 with a view to regulating labour relations and disputes in the country. May Day, the 1st of May was declared a national holiday. An Industrial Worker’s Wage Commission was constituted in 1973 to fix wage levels and other benefits for the industrial workers in the public sector. The State-owned Manufacturing Industries Workers (Terms and Conditions of Service) Act was enacted to implement the wage scale and fringe benefits determined by the wage commission.
Restrictions and Bans on Trade Union Activities:
After the liberation of Bangladesh workers enjoyed a great deal of freedom and trade union rights. Most of the plant level trade unions had joined with the ruling party trade union center Jatiyo Sramik League. Many new plant level trade unions were registered. The trade unions were powerful contenders for authority over factories, mills and establishments abandoned by previous owners and subsequently taken over by the government. The political local elite had joined trade unions to control and benefit from the taken-over industries and establishments. Traditionally most of the workers were from outside of the workplace localities and from different districts and now local people wanted to have jobs there, as industrial workers were better paid than in the informal sector.
There were many riots between locals and non-locals in different industrial districts. The worst situation had arisen in the Chittagong and Tongi industrial districts. The local ruling party leadership, in order to grab the unions there, had started agitation against non-local workers, for the trade union leadership were non-locals. Control over the trade unions would gain the local elite gains much. The first being that they can buy the products at the mill rates and sell on the market at high rates; second they can supply raw materials to the mills at high rates, and third by inducting their own people as workers and employees they can have control over the establishment and local politics. The mill rates and market rates of cotton yarn, fabric, jute product, butter oil and many other products differ very much. One could become millionaire overnight by having a dealership of Kohinoor Chemical Company, a cosmetic and toiletries industries, or have an allotment of the quota for cotton yarn from Muslin Cotton Mills of Kapasia or a quota of the allotment of matches from Dhaka Match Factory of Postogola.
Agenda and issues of Trade Union Movement:
There was a shift of government in August 1975, which was followed by a shift in economic policy as well. The socialistic policy of the Mujib government was abandoned and privatisations began, which were initiated by the succeeding government of Ziaur Rahman. Privatisation started with disinvestment and denationalisation of state owned enterprises (SOEs). All the governments till now continued the same economic policy. The present Awami League government in order to make the privatisation process of SOE’s faster formed a new institution called The Privatisation Broad, which is entrusted with the responsibility of selling off those SOEs identified for privatisation. Among disinvested industries a government survey from ministry of industries has found a few of them only running fully, some are partially and a large number are not functioning at all. The workforce in those industries has been drastically reduced.
The leading sectors like jute and textile where traditionally trade union movement was strong got weakened due to loss of the jobs of their members. To protect employment and trade union rights trade unions got united, formed Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SKOP) in 1983, and launched a series of action programmes to press their demands including job security, higher wages, trade union rights and others. In 1984, government and SKOP came to an agreement that a wages commission be set up to recommend a new wage structure. But it was implemented only in the public sector. Another important issue was the job security of disinvested industries and no further disinvestment without consulting workers. This part of the agreement was also not respected by the government. There was also an agreement that the government form a commission to draft a democratic labour legislation.
National Minimum Wage:
At present the main agenda of the Trade Union movement is a National Minimum Wage. But there is tremendous opposition from the employers to fixing a national minimum wage. They argue it should be sector wise. There are many sectors whose employers have no ability to pay such a minimum wage. Trade Unions argue that the Minimum Wage has to be looked upon as a basic right, a minimum requirement for leading a healthy working and social life. This will have to be uniform for all. They further argue that the labour is not a commodity. It is both, input into production as well as the object of production. Minimum wages are a signal to society that this is what is expected and nobody will fall under. It is also a very important incentive for business to upgrade, for certain wage structures force competitive high roads by cutting wages and degrading working conditions. Trade Unions also demand that there should be regular readjustments of wages in line with the rate of inflation.
Violation of trade union rights;
From the beginning of 80’s a new non-traditional industry, the garments industry has emerged. And now the growth of employment there nearly is 45 lakh (4.5 million) and the workforce mostly are women and not organised in trade unions. The employers do not allow workers to form trade unions. The Ministry of Labour is suspiciously silent about violations of trade union rules. The government also forbids trade union activities in the EPZ (Export Processing Zone).
Now, government is having pressure put upon it from the USA and also from the ILO to open up trade union activities in EPZ. Industries in the EPZ’s are allowed duty-free imports of raw materials and other components; they do not have to pay excise duty on local goods and are eligible for tax holidays. The idea is to create an environment that is conducive to facing competition in the export market. So that investors will be attracted to invest here and it will increase employment, revenue and technology transfer. All most all EPZ’s elsewhere offer similar packages to foreign investors.
Now the questions are these, how much local employment is being generated by these industries in EPZ’s and how much transfer of technology has taken place in reality from these industries? How much port and other charges have we received from them, how much profit sharing we could make from them? Till now existing two EPZs employ less than one lakh (100,000) workers and most of the industries here are textiles, shoes and other small scale industries where small number of workers are employed and no high technology is adopted.
But we are offering these investors remarkable amounts of land, power supply, infrastructure facilities etc. The question is also why should trade union activities be prohibited there? The government cannot restrict human rights of its citizens for the cost of foreign investment? Moreover, this is not the only issue that investors need. Peace and non-disturbance in worker relations will certainly attract the foreign investors, but the foreign investors are also need congenial atmosphere, infrastructure like banking, communication support and facilities, those are more important to them than the benefit of no trade union activities.
The Structure of Trade Unions:
The Industrial Relations Ordinance, 1969 (as amended up or date) is intended to regulate trade union activities and permit workers to organise themselves into trade unions. The trade union is required to be registered with the Register of Trade Unions. The trade unions in Bangladesh may be divided in structure into three categories, the first is basic trade union – a primary organisation of workers at their workplace. The second is the Industrial Federation or trade federation compose of a number of basic trade unions related to the same type of industry, such as Jute Workers Federation, Textile Workers Federation, Garments Workers Federations, and the third is National Trade Union, a federation of basic unions irrespective of job categories.
A National Federation may be constituted by two or more basic trade unions irrespective of their trade. Apart from these there are craft unions, though there are not many. This is organised craft-wise like Railway Karigar Union, an union of technicians of Bangladesh Railway or Biman Cabin Crew union. Non-employees and non-workers cannot be elected to the committees of a basic trade union but can be elected to the committee of Industrial Federation and National Federations. But they cannot be more than 20% of the total number of committee members.
Under the rules no unregistered trade union or federation of trade unions can function as a trade union. In case there is only one registered trade union in an establishment or a group of establishments, that trade union is deemed to be a collective bargaining agent for that establishment or group, provided it has a minimum membership of one-third of the total number of workers employed in the establishment or group of establishments. In case there is more than one registered trade union, upon receipt of an application from any trade union or management of the establishment, the Register of Trade Unions determines the bargaining agent through a secret ballot for a period of two years. But they have to get a minimum of one-third of the total number of votes of the workers employed in the establishment or group.
There was no restriction before for non-workers to be members of trade unions; the restriction came when the then-military government amended the Industrial Relations Ordinance on 26th July 1980. The tradition and history of trade unions of Bangladesh was always that non-workers took leading roles in organising the trade unions. It is always social or political activists who organise the trade unions. The neighbouring countries of Bangladesh like Sri Lanka, India and others have no restrictions on this, only the proportion of committee members from outside is defined.
The ILO’s conventions also do not have any restrictions on outsiders. Trade unions have to submit an annual statement of their income and expenditure, assets and liabilities in the prescribed form to the Register of Trade Unions, the changes of office bearers should also be intimated to the Register of Trade Unions. A person shall not be entitled to be a member or officer of a trade union formed in any establishment or group of establishments if he is not actually employed or engaged in the establishment or group of establishments.
Registration of Trade Unions:
For the registration of trade unions the applicants have to apply to the Joint Director of Labour and Register of Trade Unions while fulfilling certain requirements and procedures. For Industrial and national federation or national unions the Director of Labour and Register of Trade Unions office is responsible for registration. The National Union means those have members throughout the country – such as banks, railways and others. The trade union executive committee shall consist of 5 to 30 people depending on its membership. Up until l 50 members the committee will consists of 5 persons, and 30 committee members where there are more than 5000 union members. The applicants for union registration have to submit all the applications of membership of the proposed union in a prescribed form and also the register of membership, and the resolution of the meeting where the decision was taken to form a trade union, a list of committee members, a list of general members and the constitution of the union along with the application.
The constitutions should provide the name of the trade union, objects for which the trade union has been established, purpose for which the general fund of a trade union shall be applicable, the maintenance of a list of the members of the trade union, the admission of who shall be persons actually or potentially employed in an industry or establishment with which the trade union is connected, the payment of a subscription by members of the trade union, the executive and the other office-bearers of the trade union shall be appointed and removed, the manner in which the rules shall be amended, safe custody of funds and audit, the manner in which the trade union may be dissolved. The State-owned Manufacturing Industries Workers Ordinance, 1985 restricts collective bargaining in the nationalised sector on certain issues like wages, leave, house rent, conveyance allowances, medical allowances, festival bonuses and provident funds. A number of Acts and Ordinances provide that the Industrial Relations Ordinance 1969 shall not apply to certain establishments.
Labour Movement (to 1947)
Prior to 1947, there were only a few industrial concerns in the eastern part of Bengal (Present day Bangladesh). These included about 25 tea gardens in Chittagong and Sylhet employing about 12,000 labourers, 6 cotton textile mills (four in Dhaka and one each in Kushtia and Khulna) employing about 10,000 workers. There were also some workers in Chittagong port. The tea-estate labourers were mainly recruited from aboriginal tribes of Chhotanagpur region. Others were mostly local people from both Hindu and Muslim communities.
The first signs of labour unrest were seen during the days of the khilafat and non-cooperation movements (1920-22). The striking tea-garden workers from Chargola Valley in Sylhet (Assam) left the gardens in an exodus. Men of the East Bengal Railways and Chandpur Steamer Services started sympathetic strikes in May 1921. Striking coolies, stranded at Chandpur, faced great hardships. But it was politically regarded as a great victory of the Bengal Non-cooperators. Finally in August 1921, at Gandhi’s request, the strike was called off. The unrest in Chittagong by Burma Oil Co workers in April-May 1921 under the leadership of JM Sengupta created quite a stir.
In 1927, the Dhakeswari Cotton Mills Workers’ Union was founded. But the union was weakened by a series of strikes called within four months of its formation. Due to the Great Depression the labour movement, however, slowed down. The communist activists were mainly behind the movement but the non-communists like the official Congress and anushilan samiti, backed by the management opposed the communists’ tactics of militancy and thus acted as a constraint on any long-drawn movement. The cotton workers’ strikes in 1937-40 may be regarded as the turning point of the movement both in frequency and intensity. Mention may be made of four strikes in Mohini Mills, Kusthia (Feb-May, 1937; July-September, 1937; August-October 1939 and February-April, 1940) and the strikes in the Dhakeswari Mills (July 1939 and January-February, 1940). The movement failed to generate steam. Naturally it had a demoralising effect on the Communist-dominated Workers’ Union and no further movement was on record up to 1947. The Wartime was a period of ‘uneasy calm’ in Dhaka. The immediate post-war years witnessed the revival of militant labour agitation leading to strikes in Acharya Prafulla Chandra Mill, Khulna (December 1945 – January 1946) and the four mills in Dhaka (February-May 1946).
Since 1942 the Chittagong tea garden workers were connected with the activities of the local Communist Party. They organised a few strikes around specific economic issues in the post-World War II period, with little success. With the partition, the Communist organisers, mostly Hindus, left for India. The immigrant tea-labourers of Chhotanagpur had no desire to go back to their place of origin. Left without leaders, the labour organisation became very weak. The workers of EB Railways were best organised and politically most conscious. But they were divided between nationalist and Communist dominated unions.
Trade Union Movement
The trade union movement organised activities of workers to improve their working conditions. In the early stage of industrial development when there were personal contacts between employers (master) and workers (employee), there was no need of any organisation to determine relations between the two. But under the modern factory system the personal touch is absent and the relations between the employer and the worker have come under strain. The conflict of interests between buyer and seller of labour power has become conspicuous and this has led to the rise of trade union movements throughout the world. The tradition of the parallel development of the nationalist and the trade union movement, which had originated in British India continued through the Pakistan period down to the birth of Bangladesh.
For the first time in India the Bombay Mill Hands Association was formed on 24 April 1890. This gave impetus to the trade union movement in British India. The establishment of ILO in 1919 provided a source of inspiration for the workers to organise themselves and shape their destiny. India’s membership of the same exerted great influence in the formation of a central organisation of workers called ‘All India Trade Union Congress’ (AITUC) in 1920 for the purpose of conducting and co-ordinating the activities of the labour organisations.
The period from 1924 to 1935 may be considered as the era of the revolutionary trade union movement. MN Roy, Muzaffer Ahmed, SA Dange and Shawkat Osmani led the trade union movements and as a result the political consciousness among industrial workers increased. To control the movement, the British government adopted ruthless measures (eg, Kanpore Conspiracy Case and Meerat Conspiracy Case) against the militant workers and trade union leaders, but no strategy could suppress the trade union movement; rather the colonial resistance invigorated the movement against the colonial power. Later, the trade union movement was closely linked with nationalist movements and the working class started vigorous struggle for emancipation from extreme repression and economic exploitation by the colonial regime.
At the time of Partition of Bengal (1947), most trade union leaders were Hindus and when they migrated to India, a void was created in leadership in the trade union movement of Pakistan, especially in its eastern wing. Moreover, the institutions to advance workers’ interests were mostly situated in areas outside Pakistan. There were barely 75 registered trade unions in the whole of Pakistan, compared to 1,987 in undivided India in 1946. Of this small number of trade unions, the larger share fell to West Pakistan, leaving only a very few for the eastern wing, where there were only 141 factories with 28,000 workers and 30 unions in all with a total of 20,000 members.
During the Pakistan period most trade union leaders held conflicting views and the trade unions were fragmented and weakened. As a result, the trade union movement met a setback and the trade union activities passed into the hands of petty bourgeoisie leadership. Moreover, the trade union movement in Pakistan was characterised by fragmentation of unions, prolonged strikes, retaliatory lockouts and picketing which sometimes led to violence.
As the trade union movement in Bangladesh originated in British India and Pakistan, it naturally retained its old character of working more as a nationalist force against colonial domination than as a class force vis-a-vis capitalist exploitation. As a result, the trade union movement of the region that had gained momentum in the hands of political leaders stood divided along the political and/or ideological lines in independent Bangladesh.
During this period, the trade union movement was marked by direct interference by the government and the ruling party in its internal affairs. In many industrial belts terrorism was let loose by the men of the labour front of the then ruling party and these tried to drive out the honest trade unionists from the leadership of the unions. Moreover, the barring of outsiders from trade union leadership at the basic union level made the process of union hijacking very easy and turned the workers into a very weak and defenceless community.
In the early 1980s, the military government of Bangladesh banned all trade union activities in the country. Then an alliance of the National Federation of Trade Unions (NFTUs) emerged in the name of SRAMIK KARMACHARI OIKYA PARISHAD (SKOP) to establish the democratic rights of workers as well as to fulfil their economic demands. Most NFTUs were in SKOP and since 1983, most trade union movements in Bangladesh have been organised under the leadership of SKOP.
The opportunism and lenient attitude of the trade union leaders including SKOP gave the ruling regimes a chance to disregard the agreements signed between the government and the trade union leaders. At present, the leaders of nineteen of the twenty three NFTUs are included in the SKOP. After its formation, SKOP submitted a 5-point charter of demands for establishing their democratic rights and higher wages through rallies, torch processions, demonstrations, strikes, hartals, blockades etc.
Ironically, SKOP failed to yield any tangible results for the working class people of the country. The effectiveness of the trade union movement under the leadership of SKOP gradually weakened because most SKOP leaders have political affiliations and therefore, cannot escape the influence of their respective political parties. Moreover, the lack of active support by the major political parties to SKOP’s programmes, excessive pressures on government by the private employers and donor agencies to disregard SKOP’s demands using repressive measures to disrupt the trade union movement, forcible occupation of unions, bribing of trade union leaders, opportunistic and compromising attitude of the union leadership rendered the SKOP demands ineffective. In fact, SKOP has become a moribund forum of the working class with little to offer to the country’s future trade union movements.
Health Care Issue:
For the workers of Bangladesh do not have separate health care facilities like separate hospital or health insurance for them. The proposed health policy for Bangladesh has recommended to have separate health care system for workers in Bangladesh. Only workers and employees in the government or private sector gets cash money at the fixed rate of Tk.150 and Tk.200 for medical care with their wages and salary every month. This is so meagre it does not help workers when they get sick. Moreover they do not know what to do where to go to get proper medical care.
At the primary level of sickness they usually go to any pharmacy to get some drugs. If they are not cured by the drugs given by salesman of drug store they go to any physician either homeopath or allopathic or kabiraj nearby. In many cases if sickness is serious in nature like cholera, pox, tuberculosis, heart diseases or any mental disorder some patients go to spiritual healers. When sickness gets complications they try to get admission in government hospitals. But the government hospitals are always crammed with excessive numbers of patient so without having connections it is difficult to get admission there.
If they are able to get admission to hospital they have to pay for medicine, pathological tests and other examinations done in private laboratories or clinics. In most cases these have to go to private hospitals; those are expensive. They have to sell their land and other assets (if they have any) to meet the expenses. Many of them who cannot afford such expenses have to die without having proper medical care. Health care is primarily provided by the government, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MHFW). Some multisectoral projects in various ministries having health, family planning, nutrition components are also under MHFW. There are also municipalities, municipal corporations, army, police and railway departments which have health programmes. Many NGO’S have also health and family planning programme. The Directorate of Labour has a wing for family planning and nutrition for workers.
There are several workers’ welfare centres run by the Ministry of Labour at different industrial estates to provide emergency medical care, but in reality workers do not get any medical care there. Usually workers also do not visit there for they think it is useless to go there. Doctors and welfare officers are supposed to be there but they hardly ever can be found. If they are at all available in these centres medicine and equipment are not there. There is no need to explain why proper health care is not only a basic right of a worker but also it helps increase productivity. It will reduce mortality rates and thereby enhance the life expectancy as well as improve the efficiency of labour. It will reduce working days lost for sickness. The workers are also in need of specialised health centres where occupational diseases can be cured.
A recent study on tannery workers at Hazaribag in Dhaka done by The Society for Environment and Human Development revealed that the average longevity of a worker is below 50 years. Almost 90 per cent of tannery workers die before they reach the age of 50 due to their unhygienic work environment and lack of proper medical care. About 58.10 per cent of workers suffer from ulcers, 31.28 per cent have high blood pressure and 10.61 per cent suffer with rheumatic fever. Assistant Director of Health Dr Mohammad Hassan Ali said industrial pollutants, liquid waste and leather dust are the main cause (reports published in Daily Star on 28 February 2000).
Similar cases are also those of jute and textile workers, who suffer from asthma and other breathing related-diseases from jute and cotton dust. Trade Unions of Bangladesh are always demanding separate health care systems — clinics, health centres and hospitals for workers. If a separate health care system can be developed it will reduce the pressure on public health services also. Furthermore these will expand the facilities of medical care in the country from generating their own resources. A pilot health insurance project for workers was conceived by German Technical Assistance (GTZ) an autonomous implementing agency of German government for project aid.
While I was catering at first I found that many of us were not very enthusiastic about this idea as it will not provide “cash money to build hospitals or buy ambulances.” The Bangladesh government had also no plan at that stage to have any workers’ health scheme. It took some time to realise the possibilities and future of this kind of health project. The Ministry of Labour and Human Resources had agreed to propose a pilot health insurance project to the German Government for their assistance. Even the Employers Associations’ attitude was positive to the proposed project.
After long consultations with workers representatives and employers, the Labour Ministry and GTZ had finally came out with a pilot project scheme The project was intended to start in the second half of 1998 and should cover in its initial phase at least five factories with at least 2,000 workers, predominantly women and their dependents, approximately 5,000 to 7,000 population. Building on positive experience gained, documented and disseminated and supported by the Employers’ Associations including the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association—BGMEA, a substantially wider participation of employers was expected to be achieved still with the first phase of the project.
The project will be jointly implemented by the Ministry of Labour with the involvement of related ministries, Employers Associations and Trade Unions. The idea was tri-partite approach. Provision for health services will be arranged according to their capability, with GOB, private sector or NGO service providers. Technical support will be provided by GTZ, Germany, based on jointly developed annual operational plans and with consideration of local capacity and contributions. But the project did not materialise as the German government finally did not approve the project. This project could have been a good beginning of a workers health scheme. Out of this project a comprehensive, larger health scheme could have developed, in the beginning covering industrial workers and later it could further cover informal sector workers.
A example can be cited here: news published in a Bengali newspaper about a garments industry is being in arrangement with a non-profit health organisation, Community Health Service, for health services for their workers. India and Pakistan also have health schemes for workers of industries and in organised sectors. On my recent visit to Pakistan and India I had experienced an impressive health care scheme for industrial workers in Punjab province of Pakistan while I was going on a study tour on Industrial Relations in Pakistan along with other trade union friends organised by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies. And this health scheme is funded by employers only. No contribution from the government. Only in initial period of the scheme the government provided infrastructure support.
The scheme is called the Employees’ Social Security Scheme and was introduced in Pakistan in 1967 under the provision of Provincial Employees Social Security Ordinance. Under this ordinance the Punjab Employees Social Security Institution came into being. The main objective of PESSI is to provide comprehensive medical cover to the secured workers for work-time injuries. Presently over 498,000 workers employed in more than 24,000 industrial and commercial establishments and more than 30 lakh (3,000,000) of their family members are receiving benefits from the scheme. It has 13 local and 14 sub-local offices to give service to workers. The main source of income of PESSI is the Social Security Contribution collected from the notified industries and commercial establishments at a rate of 7% of the wage paid to their workers who are drawing wages up to Rs.3000 per month. The workers once covered under this scheme remains secured even their wages exceed the ceiling of Rs.3000. But in those cases the percentage increase in Social Security Contributions against the wage exceeding the ceiling of Rs.3000 is not payable by the employer.
PESSI provides comprehensive medical cover to the workers and their family members including consultations, indoor and outdoor medical treatment, and emergency medical care. There are clinics for primary medical care for outdoor patients; small hospitals have beds for 30 to 50 patients. Large hospitals have more than 100 beds with specialists of medicine, surgery, gynaecology, TB, pathology, orthopaedics, radiology, cardiology, dentistry etc. Even high-tech medical care like cardiac surgery, dialysis centres are there. PESSI has 117 ambulances available at different hospitals and primary medical care centres. Every patient admitted to the hospitals is paid diet expenses at the rate of Rs.40 per day. The TB and cancer patients are paid a rate of Rs.50 per day. The scheme is administrated by a governing body comprise of employers, workers and government. India has also similar health schemes like Pakistan. The workers who earn RS.3000 or less are covered by this scheme.
It differs state to state about the coverage of scheme. Some states it is covered to all non-seasonal factories using power and employing 10 or more employees and factories not using power but employing 20 or more persons. Seasonal factories, mines and plantations are excluded from the coverage. The scheme provides seven types of coverage, maternity care, benefits for dependents, disablement assistance, funeral expenses and rehabilitation allowance. Except medical care, most of the others benefits are in cash. The ESI scheme is run by the ESI corporation, comprises representatives of the Central and State governments, the medical profession and the parliament.
A Medical Council advises the Corporation on all matters concerning medical care. Three categories of medical care are provided under the scheme: restricted medical care, expanded medical care and full medical care. All the insured persons are provided full medical benefits irrespective of whatever the required facilities in Government or other institutions. Family members get restricted or expanded medical care but not full medical care. The non-medical benefits are sickness, disablement and dependants’ benefit. These are paid in cash as compensation. The financing of the scheme is mainly through contributions from the employers and employees.
The Government of India does not make any contribution but the State governments share the cost of medical benefits to the extent of one-eighth of specified items of expenditure on such benefits. The employer contributes 4 percent of the wages and employees 1.5 percent to the scheme. The ESIS caters service only in organised industrial sectors, it does not provide health security to the large number of workers engaged in the informal sector. Furthermore, Indian labour leaders complain that the quality of service offered by the ESIS medical centres is poor.
As many as 32 central federations until now are registered. No central federation has such strength that they can launch a nationwide struggle independently. They do not have such organisational or financial resources either. Almost all political parties have a trade union. All these except a few trade unions, mostly depend on support and financial help from the political party. That is also a reason that the ruling party’s trade union centre has much more affiliated unions than others. When there is shift of government there will be a shift in affiliations also. The trade unions here also depend on support from International Trade Union Federations and Foundations. They get funds from International Trade Union Federations and Foundations for holding seminars, publications and other activities.
They get free passage to go abroad to attend seminars and meetings. Foreign visits are so frequent for some trade union leaders that they are almost preoccupied with arrangements for travel – procuring visas, preparing seminar papers and others and left hardly any time to do trade union work. This has become an important aspect of the trade union movement here. An example can be cited here, Jatiyo Sramik League, labour wing of Awamy League recently affiliated to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Formerly it was with the former Soviet Union-led World Federation of Trade Unions.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and socialist states in Eastern Europe WFTU had lost its membership and resources and is now not in a position to offer free air tickets for foreign trips and hospitality in Hotel Metropole or Hotel Ukraine in Moscow to its affiliates in developing countries. Though AL chief Sheikh Hasina took a personal initiative in the beginning of eighties to get SL affiliated with WFTU, SL did lost no time to shift to ICFTU. Though there are mounting pressures for trade union unity from the workers, the trade union movement, initially set up as an extended hand of a political party, continues to function more or less as an extended hand of the political party of its affiliation.
Human society today stands at a level of development in which man has become the master of human beings. People have become victims of exploitation, oppression, torture and deprivation. However, in the hostility of human civilization, human beings were very supportive, cooperative and very close to each other. The society was a good shelter for all. But the evolution of time has created social classes in society. One class buys labor and the other sells labor. Those who sell labor are poor and those who buy labor are the owners of the means of production and the wealthiest. Social power, prestige and domination are all occupied by them. The powerful layer enforces laws, sets wages, sets the standard for crime and punishment. In all these cases the number of poor people in society is of no value to the opinion of the working class.
Human society is now doing whatever it pleases them to do, as the animal society is ‘insisting on its origin’ – that is, wealthy wealth owners, consuming more and more living a life of luxury. On the other hand, the working class is living twice in food. A few people have secured all their wealth. Whenever poor working people want to protest, this law has come along in the name of law, in the name of discipline, and sometimes with the help of religion. Much has happened and this time the change in production relations has become inevitable through social revolution.
There is no alternative for establishing a new society and an independent socialist society by abolishing the existing capitalist social system to protect the health of all people, including the working class, eliminating unemployment, poverty, social unrest. To end the plunder of capitalism, the state system, imperialism, we have to build a society where there is no human dominance over human beings. People will not exploit people. They will manage themselves. Non-state, non-capitalist socialist self-managed social system. All production systems will be owned by people of the society, including mills, factories and agricultural farms. There will be no volatility of personal ownership. The word employment will disappear forever. People will be completely free.
The Socialist Party – working with and for preparing people for changing existing society by organizing, educating and providing training. The society is working to establish a system where no unjust working period, no hierarchy, will be able to manage the entire production system, under mutual Aid.