When Alif Group, a large business conglomerate, shut down its apparel factory last month, it gave nearly 700 garment workers the due severance payments as required by law. But the 16 employees who worked there in managerial positions were not so fortunate.
“I have worked here for the last 32 years. I played a vital role to help the company earn millions of dollars,” a frustrated production manager, Md Kamrul Islam, told the Dhaka Tribune.
“But now I have to leave the factory with empty hands as the owners have not paid my dues.”.
He said the fates of 16 other employees of Alif Group are similarly uncertain.
Like these Alif Group employees, hundreds of mid-level managerial staff in the apparel sector are denied the legal entitlements accorded to their co-workers from the production level, because of the particular wording of the labour law.
Apart from line workers, thousands of people in the apparel industry work in a wide range of managerial positions, starting from production managers and merchandisers up to general managers.
The Bangladesh Labour Act 2013 stipulates retirement or termination benefits for workers in addition to many other protections. But the definition of ‘workers’ specifically excludes managerial staff.
Section 2 (65) of the law classifies a worker as any person including an apprentice employed in any establishment or industry, either directly or through a contractor, [by whatever name he is called,] to do any skilled, unskilled, manual, technical, trade promotional or clerical work for hire or reward, whether the terms of employment are expressed or implied.
Crucially, however, the Section 2 (65) definition excludes “a person employed mainly in a managerial, administrative [or supervisory] capacity.”
As a result, management personnel are not entitled to enjoy the benefits in case of termination or retirement and will typically only receive those specified in the service rules of the respective company. The middle management in the apparel industry is a particular victim of this exclusion.
Taking the advantage of the absence of legal protection, owners in the garment sector often deprive their management staff of benefits, and because they are excluded from trade unions by the labour law, no one speaks for them.
When a factory is shut or a staff member is terminated or retires, they face financial uncertainty.
Labour and Employment Senior Secretary Mikail Shipar told the Dhaka Tribune that in the amended labour law, there is no clear direction about staff benefits in case of termination or retirement.
“The employers are taking advantage of this loophole. I think they should provide benefits to these staff under the service rules of the respective companies,” he said.
“In the next amendment of the labour act, the government will include the issue so that the staff can get their dues as per the rules, and owners cannot deceive them.”
Garment workers can often rely on the support of the trade unions, who negotiate with the factory owners and the apparel trade body BGMEA to get them their termination or retirement benefits. But neither party will take responsibility for managers.
Among those to lose out is Babu, who joined Shade Fashion as a supervisor in 2009 and was promoted to line chief in 2011. He said that when the factory was forced to close, his colleagues received their dues as per the rules, but he “got nothing”.
“During workers’ negotiation with the BGMEA, we talked to them but they did not pay heed to our demands as we are not treated as workers,” said Babu. “The trade unions did not work in our favour, either.”
Nazma Akter, the president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, told the Dhaka Tribune that the trade union cannot negotiate the benefits for staff as the issue is not clear in the labour act. She said at present, employers are “taking advantage of the weakness of the law”.
“The management should be included in the rules as they work for the factory. I hope that in the next amendment, the government will include them and pave the way for their benefits within the legal framework,” said Nazma.
For their part, the trade unions treat the management with suspicion, perceiving them as the representatives of owners.
“In the labour act, a good number of people working in the private sector have been kept out of the service benefits,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, assistant executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS).
“Taking advantage of this, employers are deceiving these people. Their rights should be made clear in the law so that employers cannot deny them benefits,” he added.
Another barrier to realising benefits for managers is a lack of legal documents stating the terms and conditions of their jobs. These should be issued either at the time of their first appointment, or following a phased promotion to a management position.
In Shade Fashion, Babu became a victim of his own success in this way.
“As a member of staff, I have no legal document with terms and conditions of my benefits as I did not have a separate agreement for my promotion as line chief,” said Babu, adding that the factory only gave him an identity card with his new designation.
A management-level staff member of a closed factory, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had considered taking the owners to labour court to get his benefits.
“But we are in trouble because we have no documents,” he said.
BGMEA Vice-President Mahmud Hasan Khan Babu told the Dhaka Tribune that the management staff are supposed to enjoy benefits as per the terms and conditions of their appointment letters or agreements. “(But) I do not know whether it is fixed in the law or not,” he said.
Seeking anonymity, another BGMEA leader said there must be a clear guideline for benefits for the staff.
“It is very inhumane that a worker cannot get benefits after serving a company for years. The government and the owners should be very active in this regard,” he said.