Bangladesh lawmakers approved a new labor law this week in response the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which killed about 1,129 garment workers in April. Although the new law broadens the scope of industries that can participate in union practices, it also places a high standard on the steps required to form a union in all industries. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website], the law requires that a union receive signatures [HRW report] in support of its practice from 30 percent of the workforce in one plant. HRW claims that this threshhold can be nearly impossible in the garment industry, where one production site may employ thousands. While lawmakers have touted the law as a landmark in workers' rights, labor unions and rights organizations have criticized for making those rights effectively unobtainable. Critics are accusing Bangladesh of passing the law only to appease the US, which suspended the trade preferences [NYT report] of the world's second largest garment exporter due to concerns over unsafe working conditions three weeks ago. HRW deputy director of the Asian region Phil Robertson commented, "This would be good news if the new law fully met international standards, but the sad reality is that the government has consciously limited basic workers' rights while exposing workers to continued risks and exploitation." The controversial law's affect on trade with the US remains to be seen.
These changes come in an effort to update the Bangladeshi laws to meet international standards. Bangladesh has ratified most of the core International Labor Organization [official website] labor standards, including Convention No. 87 on freedom of association and Convention No. 98 on the right to organize and bargain collectively. According to the World Factbook, garment exports totaled USD $12.3 billion in 2009 and $11 billion in 2010, accounted for almost 12 percent of GDP.