In 2020, a report published by the ILO revealed that 61.7 percent of both male and female RMG workers in Bangladesh face violence and harassment in the workplace. Gaps in the legal framework, poor implementation strategies, lack of awareness are the main contributors to this social evil. Despite this, Bangladesh has no comprehensive mechanism to address the issue. However, the ILO Convention 190 can act as a baseline for establishing a policy and legal framework to mitigate violence and harassment in the world of work.
Currently, Bangladesh has some scattered provisions under various laws, such as Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 (BLA) and the Penal Code, 1860 to cover the offences related to workplace violence and harassment. These laws do not comprehensively address sexual harassment and are inadequate in terms of mitigating workplace violence and harassment. Section 332 of the BLA provides that, no person of any establishment shall behave unmannerly or repugnant to the modesty or honour of a female worker of that establishment. The terms 'unmannerly' and 'repugnant to the modesty or honor' are vague and provide ample scope of interpretation. Additionally, BLA prescribes no specific punishment for this offence. Under Section 307 of the general penalty, the offender will be punishable with a fine which may extend to BDT 25,000. Moreover, women employed in the informal sector are more vulnerable to violence and harassment but the workers of the sector remain outside of the ambit of the BLA compliance.
Another provision, Section 354 of the Penal Code, criminalises assault or criminal force to a woman with intent to outrage her modesty and prescribes a maximum of two years of imprisonment and a fine. The section is based on an ambiguous concept of 'outraging a woman's modesty', providing opportunities for victim-blaming on orthodox notions. Also, the offender can get rid of the charges claiming that he did not 'intend' to make the victim feel this way. Other sexual offences that do not involve physical contact are covered under Section 509 of the Code.
In 2009, the High Court Division provided landmark directives in response to a writ petition filed by Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association. Though the Court provided a list of acts that constitute sexual harassment, it did not define the offence of sexual harassment itself. It directed to form an internal complaint committee to receive and investigate complaints on sexual harassment in all work places and educational institutions in the public and private sectors. Further, the High Court Division directed the Government to formulate appropriate laws to address harassment but such laws are yet to be formulated. Nevertheless, the court has failed to prescribe a mechanism or assign an agency to monitor and implement the guidelines. Some efforts have been made by advocacy groups for executing the directives but those are not sufficient for creating large scale impact.
At this juncture, Bangladesh clearly needs a comprehensive mechanism for mitigating violence and harassment in the world of work. Ratification of the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190) and its supplementary Recommendation (No. 206) would be a significant step towards achieving the goal. The Convention and recommendation acknowledge the right of every individual to a world of work free from violence and harassment, and are grounded on the adoption of an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach. This approach envisions action on various aspects, such as protection, prevention, enforcement, remedies, guidance, training, and awareness raising. Additionally, the Convention 190 covers issues like rehabilitation and provides legal protection to the victims or complainants of workplace violence and harassment which are absent in BLA. It is apparent that ratification, as well as the incorporation of the Convention requirements to national laws, will certainly cover the gaps in the existing legal framework.
Further, the Convention expands the concept of the world of work beyond the physical workplace and acknowledges virtual workplace. Needless to say, the importance of laws that govern the virtual workplace have increased significantly due to exponential growth of 'work from home' trend during the Covid-19 pandemic.
To date, six countries have ratified the Convention. Representatives from Bangladesh Government and workers' associations have voted in favour of the ratification of the Convention but the employers have opposed it. Ratification and proper implementation of the Convention will help Bangladesh achieve the Decent Work Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) along with reducing workplace violence and harassment. It is critical to bring the employers into confidence that ratification of the Convention will be beneficial for both workers and employers. Different entities, such as national and international agencies, trade unions, donors can play a key role to make the stakeholders aware of the importance of ratifying ILO C190 and can facilitate the subsequent implementation process.
The writer is Legal Researcher at Institute for Inclusive Policy.