The TUC has written to British MEPs to support a call by global unions for the European Parliament to investigate Bangladesh's poor workers' rights record under the terms of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), by which Bangladesh gains duty and quota-free access to the EU for all their exports excepts armaments. In return, Bangladesh is supposed to abide by core International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.
The TUC has long been campaigning for the improvement of human and labour rights in Bangladesh, and more recently for the compensation of workers and their families after the Rana Plaza incident. Thanks to this pressure most UK brands have now signed the Bangladesh Accord for Fire & Safety, a binding agreement that requires brands to ensure safe working in their supply chains and to respect freedom of association.
However, Bangladesh’s government remains hostile to trade unions, making it hard for them to register and is slack about enforcing what protections exist to help unions represent their members. The government’s refusal to apply its own laws continues to leave workers vulnerable to serious injury and death.
Since December 2016, the government has launched an all-out attack on trade union activists and organisations operating in the garment sector and it clearly feels it is able to act with impunity as the traditional policy of dialogue, preferred by the EU, is currently failing. Although international pressure has now wrung key concessions from the government, the overall picture for labour rights in Bangladesh remains precarious.
A strong reaction to the recent crackdown is necessary to make it clear that the government has overstepped the mark and that continued refusal to respect fundamental labour rights will have consequences.
Thus we are asking MEPs to support the immediate launch of an investigation under the GSP into the serious and systematic violations of fundamental labour rights in the country.
Initiate a GSP investigation on Bangladesh
On behalf of the TUC, its 50 affiliated unions and 5.7million British workers, I am asking members of the European Parliament to support the immediate launch of an investigation under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) into the serious and systematic violations of fundamental labour rights in Bangladesh. Despite it having agreed to the EU Sustainability Compact for Bangladesh in 2013, which committed it to enact legislative reforms and respect fundamental labour rights, the government of Bangladesh has instead engaged in widespread and systemic violations of the right to freedom of association. Among sectors affected by the government’s actions is the garment industry, which earns billions of euros in exports to the European market while workers struggle to survive on a mere 60 euros (£51) per month. The Bangladesh government’s failure to protect or respect fundamental rights was most recently confirmed by a 2016 High Level Tripartite Mission, when the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards included Bangladesh in a ‘special paragraph’ of its report to the 2016 Conference.
While the situation has been serious for some years, the matter is even more urgent today. Using the pretext of a non-violent strike for a living wage and dignity at work in Ashulia, in December 2016, the government has launched an all-out nationwide attack on trade union activists and organisations operating in the garment sector. Over two dozen union leaders and activists were arrested on bogus criminal charges and some were beaten severely while in custody. Charges have also been filed against hundreds of other “unnamed” workers. At the same time, garment employers engaged in mass, illegal dismissals of at least 1,500 workers; many were forced to sign severance agreements and told to leave under fear of arrest. Police have closed several union offices and even shut down an ILO-supported meeting on health and safety.
Despite these shocking acts, the European Commission has stubbornly refused to undertake a GSP investigation, arguing instead for more dialogue. We do not oppose dialogue; it is clear that the manner in which the European Commission has conducted dialogue has been ineffective given that the situation has only worsened substantially over the last several years. It is also clear, from the brazen nature of the recent actions against trade unionists, that the government of Bangladesh feels that it is acting with impunity. The EU must continue its dialogue in the context of an investigation, which will demonstrate to the government of Bangladesh that the EU is serious about promoting human rights in its external relations. Indeed, the EU will merely be enforcing its own existing regulation. Bangladesh would have ample time under such an investigation to come into compliance before any threat of loss of benefits.
In our view, failure by the EU to conduct an investigation now will only render it complicit in future acts of repression in Bangladesh. I therefore urge you to support an immediate investigation under the GSP into the serious and systematic violations of fundamental labour rights in Bangladesh.