The European Union, a top export destination for Bangladesh, now wants Bangladesh to amend its existing labour law by June 2022 to stay eligible for the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) facility in their market and the GSP Plus benefit after graduating to a developing country.
The EU has pressed for safeguarding labour rights and bringing an end to harassment of workers for Bangladesh to get the duty-free trade facility given under the EBA (Everything but Arms) arrangement after 2023, according to a letter sent to the government recently.
The club of European countries has also sought an amendment to Bangladesh's EPZ labour act by the same timeframe to protect rights of workers and give them easy access to trade unions and ensure inspection by the Department of Inspection for factories and establishments in factories inside an EPZ.
Bangladeshi stakeholders feel that they are ready to approve trade unions in the EPZs and inspections by the factory inspection department, but introducing trade unions will be challenging.
Earlier, Bangladesh promised that it would amend labour related laws by December 2022 in its action plans sent to the EU in April this year.
The EU has also urged the Bangladesh government to ensure punishment to employers and members of law enforcement agencies involved in harassment and torture of workers.
The EU's ongoing GSP scheme will expire in December 2023. The new scheme will be launched from next year after the draft of the EU's new GSP resolution gets the go-ahead from the European Parliament next June.
That is why the EU is now pushing Bangladesh for amendments to the two laws on labor rights by that time as the continuation of the GSP facility from 2024 will depend on the protection of labour and human rights.
Besides, the EU has suggested formulating a time-bound action plan that require introduction of free and compulsory education up to the eighth grade, incorporating agriculture, forestry and fishing, construction industry, mining, manufacturing and services (domestic work) in the list of risky jobs for children.
In 2019, the EU sought a nine-point roadmap from Bangladesh to protect labour and human rights to remain eligible for the GSP benefit.
After Bangladesh submitted the roadmap in January last year, EU officials expressed frustration and gave their opinion on it on 10 December.
Later, the foreign affairs ministry sat with the EU Ambassador in Dhaka and sent a revised roadmap on 5 April. The 26-nation alliance was not happy with that either.
In its latest letter, the EU has informed Bangladesh of their strong stance over implementation of the country's time-specific action plan that incorporates 18 areas for action in safeguarding human and labour rights.
The EU's proposed areas for action include introducing trade unions in factories inside EPZs, amending various laws and regulations related to labour rights as per its timeframe, increasing punishment for anti-union discrimination, reinstating workers who lose jobs for violence and harassment and compensating them and ensuring disciplinary actions against those involved in labour unrests.
Bangladesh's foreign, commerce and labour secretaries will hold a virtual meeting with the EU on 15 June on the 18-point proposal. The secretaries will present Bangladesh's position on the implementation of these conditions to the EU.
On Thursday, a stakeholders' meeting was held with Commerce Secretary Tapan Kanti Ghosh in the chair to prepare for the forthcoming meeting with the EU, which was also attended by representatives of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA).
BKMEA director Fazle Shamim Ehsan, who attended the meeting, told The Business Standard that they discussed the conditions that Bangladesh can fulfil and those it cannot at the moment.
He said Bangladesh in the roadmap mentioned labour law amendment by December 2022, but the EU wants it by June 2022. The government will request the EU to extend the deadline until December 2022 owing to the pandemic-led crises and the lengthy amendment process.
"The government is ready to approve trade unions in the EPZs and inspections by the factory inspection department. But introducing the unions to replace the existing workers' welfare associations will be challenging," he noted.
Referring to the meeting discussions, the BKMEA leader said Bangladesh brought in foreign investors promising that the EPZs would not have labour unions. "Now, if we go back on the assurance, it would frustrate the manufacturers."
Labour Secretary KM Abdus Salam refused to comment when asked about the country's stance about the EU terms.
But a commerce ministry official, on condition of anonymity, said the government is likely to continue to take it easy on the law enforcers as Bangladesh will not take actions against police on labour repression charges.
The EU stressed applying for trade unions with signatures of 10% workers, which met with factory owners' disapproval.
"We will not upset the EU," said the ministry official, adding, "The government will try its best to relax the conditions. We hope the EBA will continue until 2029. Bangladesh will be sincere to fulfil the conditions if we get assurance that the country will enjoy the EU's GSP Plus facility after the LDC graduation."
Ban child labour in households too
The nine-point action plan of the EU stipulates eliminating child labour within 2025 as the government plans to do away with child workers from the exporting sectors by that time.
Now the EU demand elimination of child labour in farming, forestry, fisheries, all industries and service sectors and even in households where children are employed as domestic help.
Considering the socio-economic situation, public officials think banning child labour from agriculture, informal sectors, and household works will be very challenging
In the previous proposal, the EU sought Bangladesh's roadmap to ensure quality primary education and hundred percent enrolment. But Dhaka has yet to submit the plan.
The EU now wants the government to clarify its position on the topic and has taken a firm stance for the implementation. The EU asked the government to include the free and compulsory education up to class eight to the roadmap.
The club for the European Countries also asked Bangladesh to include a provision to have mobile court drives backed by labour law and EPZ act.
The EU has been pursuing the amendments to labour law and EPZ labour act, setting up new labour courts, recruitments to the vacant posts at factory inspection department, and creating new posts before the new GSP resolution in the EU parliament slated for June 2022.
The EU is firm about the amendments and other terms by June 2022 though the government aims at implementing the nine-point action plan by December 2022 to December 2026.
The EU specifically wants trade unions in EPZs by amending the law by June 2022.
Before amending the EPZ act, the EU is pressuring the government to formulate an EPZ labour policy in light of the Bangladesh Labour Policy 2015. Besides, it has been advocating for a policy framework by June this year so that the factory inspection department gets access to the EPZs.
The Ministry of Labour and Employment was intended to set up the new labour courts by December 2023 as the EU says the courts will have to be established by December 2022.
Dhaka had set a roadmap to fill the vacancies of labour inspectors by December next year, but the EU headquarters said the vacancies would have to be filled within this year. And new posts will have to be created by March next year.
Besides, the EU has set new conditions for apparel unit renovation, which began after the Rana Plaza collapse, within this year that Bangladesh finds almost impossible.