Labour Act 2006, which was amended in 2013 and 2018, requires a further analysis through a gender lens and consequent amendments, said experts, activists, policymakers and researchers at a webinar on Thursday.
It is crucial to take stock of the shortcomings in the Labour law and to take steps to bridge the gender gaps, they said.
"It is imperative that we acknowledge the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic such as joblessness of female workers in the informal and formal sector," said Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), at the virtual discussion titled "Labour, Law, Rules and Relevant Policies and Review through a Gender Lens," jointly organised by the MJF and The Business Standard.
"Additionally, we need more advocacy for monitoring the application and implementation of the laws that already exist," she said.
The MJF recently completed a review process of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 and relevant policies through a gender lens, submitted by Dr Uttam Kumar Das. The review's objectives were to identify gender gaps in the labour laws, rules, and policies already in place, and Identify key action points integrating gender concerns in employment policy measures.
"We have achieved significant improvement in labour rights and women's rights in the past, but how much is really reflected in the law?" questioned Banasree Mitra Neogi, gender advisor, MJF, emphasising the importance of identifying the root problems which demand discussions such as Thursday's webinar.
The MJF's review puts focus on wage, discriminatory limitations in maternity benefits, exclusion of anti-sexual harassment and violence against women in workplace policy, limitations in reproductive and health rights, and lack of provision for reserved seats for female workers, said Shoma Dutta, program manager of MJF.
Nazma Akter, founder and executive director of Awaj Foundation, said "The laws, such as the one regarding the maternity leave of six months, are already in place, but are not effectively followed."
"Additionally, we have seen cases where laws tend to be friendly to the business owners, rather than to the workers," she added.
Sunzida Sultana, acting executive director of Karmojibi Nari, said the authorities concerned do not pay heed to female workers' demands.
"We have created a corporate ecosystem where women's participation is only true on papers. For instance, there are many cases where women were not even aware of their membership in certain committees and forums, although the management had included their names on paper," she added.
Razequzzaman Ratan, president of Socialist Labour Front, said, "We need to focus on changes in law, society and collective mentality to increase women's participation in the labour market."
He also said, echoing Nazma Akter's comment, "The labour laws are work-friendly, rather than worker-friendly. This requires amendment. Among other things, we should put up a signboard in every workplace listing the actions towards women which are deemed unacceptable."
Health and safety guidelines in the workplace are limited when it comes to women. Discussants emphasised the woes of female garment workers in this regard.
"We can spend crores of taka on fire exits but not on basic menstrual hygiene products," said Abul Monsur Azad, national program officer, International Labour Organization.
"For instance, Indonesia has two days of menstrual leave per month granted to women," he continued, adding that, "We need to give more importance to health policy, not just to safety policy."
SK Muslima Moon, additional director of the Department of Women Affairs, highlighted the importance of social awareness of gender roles and relationships in society. "It is not possible to implement laws without social awareness," she said.
Nazrul Islam Khan, executive director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), said, "We have shortcomings in our Labour laws, but in comparison to other countries, we fare much better."
"However, what is unfortunate is that we fail to fulfil what we deem our responsibility. In addition, we are leaving out a substantial percentage of the female workforce – such as domestic workers, agricultural workers, government employees – from these laws. This needs to be addressed," he said.
"There are 13-14 lakh female domestic workers who are not accounted for in the Labour law," said Shamsun Nahar Bhuiyan, a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Labour and Employment.
"Only if these laws are rectified, we can increase our bargaining power in the international labour market. For example, harassment of our female domestic workers overseas can be addressed if these laws are rectified," she opined.
During this difficult time of the pandemic, the economy is being run by the RMG sector which consists of 65% of the female labour force.
"We are gearing towards the full potential of Bangladesh's economy because of the female labour force. To achieve this, we must ensure legal security rights of the female workforce," said Maleka Banu, general secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad.
Quoting Amartya Sen, she said, "Empowering women is key to building the future we want."
"We need to work on ways to increase women participation in all sectors," said politician Shama Obaed.
The webinar also included Sifat-e-NurKhanam, a representative from BLAST, Dr Uttam Kumar Das, human rights lawyer and advocate (attorney) at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and Shoma Dutt, programme manager, MJF as discussants.