Bangladesh has eased regulations for forming trade unions at garment factories in what appears to be a bid to appease the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The government has decided to slash the requirement for workers' consent to form trade unions from the previous 30% of a company's workforce, to 20%.

"It was a government decision. This will ease the workers' freedom of association," Aminul Islam, joint secretary of the ministry of labour and employment, told just-style. "It will make the formation of trade unions easy."

Islam says the decision will be passed into a law by June after amending the country's labour laws, which have been under the scrutiny of workers' rights groups and the international community. "This was a major demand of trade unions and the ILO," he adds.

The reform comes ahead of an International Labour Conference scheduled for 28 May to 8 June in Geneva, but the response from trade unions has remained tepid.

"This is progress, but it is not something we expected," says Towhidur Rahman, secretary general of IndustriAll Bangladesh Council (IBC), an affiliate of Geneva-based IndustriAll Global Union.

The IBC has called for a 5% threshold, while a national workers' group, known as SKOP (Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad), has argued against any worker support percentage requirement for the formation of unions, according to Rahman.

In India, he says, a trade union could be formed with just 10 workers.

While the revision will help ease the formation of unions at small apparel factories, Rahman warns that it will still act as a "roadblock" in case of large establishments.

For example, he says, the formation of unions would be impossible in factories having 10,000 workers.

"Where can you hold two pre-registration general meetings with 2,000 workers [20%]?" he asks. "In large factories, it can happen only if owners' wish."  

Apparel trade groups have been neutral about the announcement. "We're agreeable to whatever the government will do," Mahmud Hasan Khan (Babu), a vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told just-style.