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"COVID-19 pending benefits class action lawsuit"

Published : Tuesday, 21 February, 2023 at 12:00 AM  Count : 376
Robayet Ferdous Syed

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the global economy, with many businesses and industries suffering from the economic downturn. The private university industry in Bangladesh is no exception.  Teachers, staff, and many others have had their payments delayed or cancelled, or terminated from their job during the pandemic. This essay will discuss the issue of private university teachers pending salaries, bonuses, increments, and other unpaid payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will explore the potential solutions available to them.

The teachers working in private universities in Bangladesh are generally highly qualified, with many holding advanced degrees from reputable foreign institutions. However, the working conditions and salary of private university teachers in Bangladesh have been a matter of concern, as they are often lower than their counterparts in other private and public sectors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has deteriorated, and many of them have been affected extremely, but none have had open their mouth, mainly due to their social status.

Due to COVID, some private universities have faced financial difficulties due to short-falling student admission, which has led to salary, bonuses, increments cuts, and in numerous cases, terminated teachers without giving their benefits. Most private universities shifted to conducting their classes online without providing sufficient training to teachers. There are a significant number of visiting faculties (part-time) who worked in private universities, but the university authority did not renew contracts with them. Instead, in addition to regular class work, one to three extra courses have been assigned to the regular teachers working as permanent faculties, which have significantly saved university revenue. The university authorities further instructed to merge two sections into one, which usually contains about 50 to 80 students in zoom meet online classes. Moreover, nearly all private university authorities instructed (impliedly or expressly, or compelled) their teachers to motivate and collect new students for admission via online marketing. They all have been hectic in meeting the transition of COVID-19 and contributed significantly to their universities.

The COVID game is now over, but the legal issues about pending salaries, bonuses, increments, and other admissible benefits are still yet to settle in many aspects. The question is, how can we resolve this? It is expected that ethical universities will never be delayed in paying unpaid benefits to teachers. However, what can teachers do against unethical private universities that deprive teachers rights? It will not be wise to file a lawsuit by an individual against a university. An individual teacher would not be on equal footing in terms of money, time, position, access to court, and other pertinent facilities to fight against a mighty university.  Many teachers (especially faculty of law) are aware of their rights; they know how to address this issue; they do have the resources to sue since many of them become advocates, but still, self-enforcement is unrealistic. They might be fearful of retaliation from the university or a troublemaker reputation that will follow them in the job market. Further, it is unrealistic to file a lawsuit against a university when the employment relationship is ongoing. Rather, it may happen when the employment relationship ends or is terminated. But still, for due reasons, it would be better to file sue by teacher associations instead of individuals. But the truth is the current association is not active. They lack understanding and resources. Most importantly, they are not motivated by such issues. As a result, there is a strong alternative to filing a class action lawsuit' against universities, which is very usual in many western countries.

A class action lawsuit is a legal proceeding in which a large group of people collectively sue another party, typically a corporation or establishment. The plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit are called the "class," and they typically have similar claims against the defendant. Class action lawsuits are often used when it is impractical for each individual to file their own lawsuit, and they can find an efficient way to resolve disputes involving a large number of people. The outcome of a class action lawsuit applies to all members of the class, whether or not they were actively involved in the lawsuit.

Though class action lawsuits are not common in Bangladesh, there is a legal precedent for them. In 2018, a group of garment workers in Bangladesh filed a class action lawsuit against their employer for unpaid wages and overtime pay. The case was successful, and the workers were awarded $2.3 million in compensation. This case demonstrates that class action lawsuits can be successful in Bangladesh and that private university teachers may have a legal recourse to recover their unpaid benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. It can help ensure that university authorities are held accountable for their actions and that similar situations do not occur in the future. Finally, it can provide a sense of justice and closure for those affected by the universities' errant actions.

However, it is noted that filing a class action lawsuit also carries certain risks. For example, pursuing a class action lawsuit can be expensive and time-consuming, and there is no guarantee of success. Further, even if successful, it may take months or even years before any compensation is received. And if unsuccessful, the plaintiffs may be responsible for paying the defendants legal fees. Despite some risk, a class action lawsuit will be a landmark action against the profit hunger employers who deliberately violate employees rights and precipitate impunity as a so-called member of high profile in society.

There is a letter of the law that the board of trustees will not get any benefits from the income from private universities. But it is an open secret, and we all know the reality. Therefore, it is good for universities to settle the unpaid issues; otherwise, who knows when universities will face a class action legal battle?  

-    Robayet Ferdous Syed is an Associate Professor of Law who graduated from the University of Dhaka and the University of Ottawa, currently, doing Ph.D. at Monash University, Dept of Business Law and Taxation, under a Fulbright Graduate Research Excellence Scholarship


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