Concern over GSP facilities for Bangladesh in EU markets

The European Union flags flutter at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on 19 September, 2019Reuters file photo

The European Union has expressed concerns over human rights and labour rights issues in Bangladesh.

The block said Bangladesh finalised the National Action Plan on the Labour Sector (NAP) in 2021 and is regularly reporting every six months on the progress of the implementation. Yet, concerns remain in particular with respect to freedom of association. At the same time, limited progress was recorded for human rights.

The EU made the concerns in its assessment report on the generalised scheme of preferences (GSP) covering the period 2020-2022, which was made public on its website on 21 November. The report said the preferences may be withdrawn from any GSP beneficiaries in case of serious and systematic violation of the principles of the core human and labour right conventions.

The EU’s assessment report raised concerns among several apparel exporters. Experts also found reasons for being concerned, but apparel exporters’ associations said there is no reasons for being concerned for now.

By removing such import duties, the EU’s GSP helps developing countries to alleviate poverty and create jobs based on international values and principles, including labour and human rights, environment and climate protection, and good governance. Currently, 65 countries export products to 27 member countries of the EU under the block’s GSP that compromised three arrangements; Standard GSP, GSP+ and EBA.

The report said the EU enhanced engagement with three GSP beneficiary countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, because United Nations (UN), International Labour Organization (ILO) and civil society expressed deep concerns as these countries showed lacking with regard to human and labour rights.

The report further said preferences may be withdrawn from any GSP beneficiaries in case of serious and systematic violation of the principles of the core human and labour right conventions. And, the report citied on such case, as the EU partially and temporarily withdrew EBA (Everything But Arms) preferences for Cambodia in February 2020 due to serious and systematic violations of certain human rights in the Southeast country.

On Bangladesh, the report said, “Concerns remain in particular with respect to freedom of association including anti-union discrimination and obstacles to trade union establishment and operation, occupational safety and health, labour inspection, and child labour and forced labour.”

“At the same time, limited progress was recorded for human rights, where concerns persist for alleged torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances, as well as for deficiencies regarding freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the civil society space and the application of the death penalty,” the report added.

Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, chairman of private research firm Research and Policy Integration for Development (RAPID), thinks there are reasons to be concerned over the GSP facilities. He told Prothom Alo the US can decide anything quickly while the EU follows a process all the time, and the block investigate and observe any allegation and then they take a decision.

Emphasis on fulfilment of lacking

US president Joe Biden signed the presidential memorandum on advancing worker empowerment, rights, and high labour standards globally on 16 November. Regarding this, US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken said the US would engage governments, workers, labour organisations, trade unions, civil society, and the private sector around the world to protect and promote respect for internationally recognized labour rights. They will also work to hold accountable those who threaten, who intimidate, who attack union leaders, labour rights defenders, labour organizations – including using things like sanctions, trade penalties, and visa restrictions – all the tools in their kit.

In September 2021, Bangladesh’s labour ministry finalised published the National Action Plan on the Labour Sector of Bangladesh (NAP 2021-2026), following intense and productive technical discussions with the EU delegations, and Bangladesh is working accordingly.

“With respect to the key concerns on labour rights, the authorities in Bangladesh should increase the pace of implementing the commitments on labour rights included in the NAP and ILO road map, and continue to report regularly on progress achieved in line with the timelines provided,” the EU report read.

Readymade garment (RMG) sector enjoys the highest benefits of the EU’s GSP facilities. Bangladesh earned USD 46.99 billion from the export of RMG products in 2022-23 fiscal, and 50 per cent of it came from the EU.

Faruque Hassan, president of the RMG factory owners’ body Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told Prothom Alo, “I think there is nothing to worry about regarding the EU’s GSP facilities for the time being because we are improving on labour rights issues gradually. Labour law and rules have been amended several times over the past 10 years, and those amendments went in favour of the workers. So, I do not think the EU will take any negative measure because if GSP facility is lifted due to labour rights issues, workers will suffer the worst.”

Research director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Khandaker Golam Moazzem thinks the GSP facility may be at risk because of the EU’s concerns on human and labour rights issues. He told Prothom Alo this assessment report may provoke international pressure with regard to the weakness of the labour quality in Bangladesh. There have been some improvements on legal framework of labour rights, but violation of human rights is often visible on various issues, he added.

At present, as a quick measure, it is necessary to ensure the freedom of expression in political dominion and take initiative to stop oppression on dissidents, Khandaker Golam Moazzem said adding, it is also necessary to ensure legal aid in the lawsuits that were filed during the recent labour movement for wage hike, as well as for workers who were arrested in those cases.