A BILL setting out to empower the government to declare essential any services or job and any services related to the job with a provision for punishment for ‘illegal’ strike that may threaten such services has been sent to the relevant parliamentary standing committee for a further examination after it was placed in the parliament on April 6. The legislation, the Essential Services Bill 2023, which received the cabinet approval in October 2022, will replace, after its passage, the Essential Services (Maintenance) Act 1952 and the Essential Services (Second) Ordinance 1958 and provision for a maximum of one year’s imprisonment and a penalty of Tk 100,000 for the violation of the law. The bill sets out to allow the government to declare essential any services whenever it is necessary for six months, which may be extended further by six more months, and the legislation would override the labour law in case of any conflicts. The government is also reported to have held no consultation with other stakeholders on the preparation of the legislation. The legislation is feared to stand all the chances to become an overbroad law for use by the government to suppress workers when they stand together for their just demands.
The proposed legislation could be used against striking which is an effective, and sometimes the only, means for workers to protect their interests. It may very well leave workers completely at the mercy of employers while it would destroy the balance in the worker-employer power relations. This would help the government more and more to ban industrial action and punish workers standing up for their rights. This would also harm workers and employers as this would stop them from going on strike, which mostly happens centring around pay and better working condition. Whatever achievement that has so far been made in the industrial sector in terms of working condition and worker rights has mostly because of worker protest, mostly finally having reached striking or calls for a strike. The legislation could also be used to deny workers and employers their right to protest, also by strike, which stands on three other important rights — the right to the freedom of assembly, the right to the freedom of association and the right to the freedom of speech. It is everyone’s right to be heard and the legislation, which would set such rights aside, would harm equality and inclusivity for all.
Experts, in such a situation, suggest that any law even to temporarily restrict the right to strike even in special circumstances must follow a series of open, inclusive process of consultation with stakeholders so as to ensure that the right to strike is not undermined in the name of uninterrupted essential service delivery. It is also said that all terms in such a law must be concretely and unambiguously defined so as to allow no scope for subjective and purposeful interpretation to facilitate targeted abuse to serve any vested interests. This is always wise for the government to, rather, improve industrial relations so as to ensure no scope for workers and employees to stand up in protest.