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Bangladesh’s success in labour rights and safety still questioned by many

By FashionUnited


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While the government of Bangladesh claims to be doing much to ensure labour rights and improved working conditions in its factories - enough to get its GSP status (Generalised Scheme of Preferences) renewed at least - the United States, the European Union and the International Labour Organization (ILO) are saying something different.

Bangladesh recently finalised the implementation rules for the Bangladesh Labour Act, which was passed in parliament on July 15, 2013, amending the Labour Act of 2006. Since then, the USA, EU, ILO and many western organisations have requested the government to enact the rules, the absence of which has kept the amended Labour Act ineffective.

ILO emphasises importance of compliance with international labour standards

An ILO delegation visited Dhaka from 19-21 May 2015 and discussed with the government and other stakeholders the implementation rules of the Act, emphasising the importance of ensuring that the rules comply with international labour standards.

“The speed with which the Government revised the Bangladesh Labour Act following Rana Plaza sent a strong signal about its commitment to enhance labour rights and working conditions. It is vital that the implementation rules fully reflect this and promote core labour standards,” said Karen Curtis, chief of the Freedom of Association Branch of ILO’s International Labour Standards Department and leader of the delegation.

In the meantime, the US ambassador in Dhaka, Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, said the government of Bangladesh had to do more in terms of labour rights issues and improving working conditions if it really wanted to restore GSP status for its products entering the US market.

Addressing an international business forum in Dhaka recently, she acknowledged Bangladesh’s improvement in workplace safety but said: “There is scope for more to do in terms of workers' rights issues. For restoration of the GSP, Bangladesh should emphasise on labour rights issues.”

The EU ambassador in Dhaka, Pierre Mayaudon, echoed Bernicat’s remarks while talking with economic reporters in the city recently. “The Rana Plaza tragedy has triggered an immense emotion in Europe and also an immediate reaction. Both have translated into the sustainability compact. Two years later, our determination remains intact.”

“We now expect fast progress on two fronts: implementing the rules to be issued without further delay and the status of the EPZ should benefit from the revised labour act. The implementation rules should be there by the end of June. They will apply to all sectors of the industry,” Mayaudon added.

He said Bangladesh should perceive the sustainability compact not as a burden but rather as a fantastic opportunity to bring its economy forward. According to Mayaudon, this is also the best tribute that could be paid to the thousands of victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy.

Meanwhile, the US administration has moved forward to enact a bill renewing its GSP scheme for 122 developing and least developed countries, except Bangladesh. The tenure of the scheme expired on July 31, 2013. Before that, the US government had suspended the GSP for Bangladeshi products on June 27, 2013 following the deadly Rana Plaza collapse and the fire at Tazreen Fashions, citing serious shortcomings in workplace safety and workers' rights.

Trade officials fear that Dhaka’s exports to Washington might face tough competition as Bangladesh has been excluded from the list of eligible beneficiaries after the GSP scheme is renewed.

“All these recent initiatives, persuasion by US importers and the GSP alliance countries for renewal of the GSP made Bangladesh's exports to the US market further difficult as Bangladesh is not a part of the package at this time,” commercial counsellor of Bangladesh in Washington, SK Aktar Hossain, wrote in a recent letter to the commerce secretary in Dhaka.

Implementation rules Bangladesh Labour Act finalised

While the western countries and organisations are still not satisfied over Bangladesh’s progress at the labour front, the government and factory owners are found to be happier with its achievement: Commerce minister Tofail Ahmed told FashionUnited that Bangladesh had achieved remarkable progress in the fields of labour rights and improved working conditions inline with the actions plans forwarded by the US and the EU.

He said some 207 inspectors had been appointed for the Department of Factory Inspections and 218 for the Department of Fire Service and Civil Defence, while the appointment of RAJUK inspectors - the public agency responsible for coordinating urban development in Dhaka - is in the process of giving more emphasis to building inspections.

The ILO's Better Work Programme in the apparel sector has been in operation since October 2013, and nearly 3,000 factories have already been inspected by inspectors of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety. Due to inspection findings, some 32 factories have already been suspended.

“And in the latest, we have finalised the labour law implementation rules which may be issued by June,” said Ahmed. He said the US should withdraw the GSP suspension for Bangladesh since almost all of their conditions had already been met.

“If the US does not withdraw the GSP suspension and [does not] include Bangladesh in the list of eligible countries of the scheme despite our remarkable progress in ensuring labour rights and workplace safety, it must be politics what is behind this,” the minister said without elaborating.

The secretary of the ministry of labour and employment, Mikail Shipar, said everything had been done in line with US prescription to ensure labour rights. “We have done our best from Bangladesh's perspective. But, maybe there are some shortcomings on US judgment. Removing those shortcomings is not possible at all,” he said.

Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said the non-withdrawal of the suspension and exclusion of Bangladesh from the list of eligible countries in the renewed scheme would be a matter of image problem for the country. “We have created a favourable working environment in the factories, ensured labour rights and finalised the rules on labour law. We are continuously working in line with the US action plan,” he said.

By: Syful Islam, Dhaka

gsp status
labour rights