The European Commission has warned Bangladesh about its readiness to launch the procedure for withdrawal of the generalised scheme of preferences if it fails to make sufficient progress on fundamental human rights and labour standards.
The EC said that Bangladesh made progress in certain areas but it was not enough and there was the need for further efforts to fully align Bangladesh labour laws and practices with ILO standards.
A recent report titled ‘EU Enhanced Engagement with three Everything-But-Arms beneficiary countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar’ said that the EU would decide the next step of action in line with the recommendation of the International Labour Organisation report on Bangladesh to be published this March.
The report said that the benefits that Bangladesh enjoyed thanks to the tariff preferences while exporting to the EU market under the EBA must go hand-in-hand with respect for human rights and labour rights.
The October 2019 EBA mission asked Bangladesh to take urgent, comprehensive, and sustainable actions to fully make its laws and practices compliant with ILO standards, it said.
‘For Bangladesh, and Myanmar, the Commission will review the situation and decide on the next steps. If dialogue fails to produce sufficient results, the EU remains ready, as a last resort, to launch the procedure for withdrawal of preferences with due consideration for the economic and social impact of such a withdrawal,’ the report read.
It said that the lack of results in Cambodia on human rights and labour rights led to the start of a formal withdrawal of the EBA preferences procedure.
The EC and the European External Action Service stepped up engagement with the three GSP-beneficiary countries in a bid to facilitate and incentivise partner countries to make progress in critical areas with regard to the 15 core human rights and labour rights international conventions covered in the GSP Regulation, the report said.
The EC in its report has raised its concern over the legal obstacles to the establishment of trade unions and shrinking civil society space and freedom of expression.
It observed that legislative restrictions, such as the existing minimum membership requirement, hampered the establishment of trade unions.
The minimum membership requirement was reduced in October 2018 from 30 per cent to 20 per cent of the workforce, but remains a major barrier to the formation of trade unions, the report observed.
‘Certain sectors are excluded from the scope of the Bangladesh Labour Act and the EPZ labour law. Workers in EPZs do not have the same rights as other workers (for example, they are not allowed to affiliate with trade unions or non-governmental organisations outside the EPZs),’ the report said.
The EU started enhanced engagement with Bangladesh in 2017 and during the enhanced engagement dialogue, clear messages had been passed that the tariff preferences under the EBA were conditional on the respect for labour standards and human rights.
According to the report, in September 2018, the first EBA monitoring mission focused on labour rights and Bangladesh made certain amendments to its labour laws during October 2018–March 2019.
The second EBA mission which took place in October 2019 noted the progresses but underlined that these were insufficient and there was the need for further efforts to fully align Bangladesh labour laws and practices with ILO standards.
The EC report asked Bangladesh to remove the legal obstacles to the right to the establishment of trade unions and the free organisation of their activities.
It also urged the government of Bangladesh to reduce the minimum membership requirement to form trade unions and allow the formation of trade unions in the Export Processing Zones.
The EC in the report also urged Bangladesh to eliminate the anti-union discrimination and forced and child labour through concrete action plans and to improve freedom of expression and civil society space, investigate the extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances.
The report said that in the last meeting of a sub-group on human rights and good governance under the EU-Bangladesh Cooperation that took place in October 2019 allowed for an extensive exchange on a number of issues of concern in Bangladesh.
The issues it mentioned were transparency, the rule of law, law enforcement, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture and elections.
‘Bangladesh has been marked as a serious and urgent case for many years by the ILO supervisory mechanism,’ the report said.
It further said that the ILO had issued detailed recommendations to Bangladesh on necessary amendments to legislation and changes in practice to align with international labour standards.
The EU in particular raised the alignment of the Bangladesh Labour Act and the Export Processing Zone Act with the fundamental ILO Conventions 87 and 98.
‘This is not an expression of disappointment but to keep the issues relevant and alive so that the principles don’t get lost,’ Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association president Rubana Huq told reporters on the report.
She said that Bangladesh and the EU had recently had constrictive discussions on the progress of labour and human rights situation in Bangladesh at the EU Parliament and at the meeting of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
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