The visiting European parliamentary committee on international trade has made it clear that Bangladesh needs to fix its human rights issues and must implement the labour roadmap to be eligible for the generalised system of preferences (GSP) plus scheme, a trade facility, once the country graduates from the LDC bloc.
"We have some serious concerns on human rights. Let me say that very basic international human rights conventions go together with accession to the GSP Plus regime," Heidi Hautala, chair of the delegation, said at an event titled "DCAB Talk" organised at the National Press Club in Dhaka on Tuesday by the Diplomatic Correspondents Association, Bangladesh (DCAB).
She said the committee believes that adequate protection of labour rights can only lead to fundamental human rights.
"I want to emphasise that civil society must have adequate space for free expression and we pay great attention to the situation regarding extrajudicial detention and enforced disappearances. So this situation at the moment is not compatible with core human rights conditions under the GSP Plus," she added.
Focusing on the labour roadmap, Heidi Hautala said, "One year ago, your government committed itself to implementing a labour roadmap. We strongly welcome these major steps as the successful implementation of the roadmap will very much lead to your graduation process and subsequent accession to the GSP Plus regime."
"So I wish to stress that full and successful implementation of the roadmap is a clear precondition for any accession to the GSP Plus in the future," she added.
The delegation expressed concern over "reported delays" in putting the Labour Law and the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) Labour Law in full compliance with international standards.
"Compliance with standards should be ensured for all special economic and processing zones. We are aware of the important challenge this represents for your country and the EU has been fully supportive of this process," Heidi Hautala said.
"But as these are two fundamental requirements in order to successfully transition to GSP+ it would be urgent to anticipate deadlines for entry into force and to ensure full effective implementation," she added.
Referring to the delegation's meetings with government officials, she said, "I would like to express my delight that today in our discussion with the members of government we heard that there is more attention now being paid to accelerate this implementation."
On the child labour issue, she said, "EU has a zero-tolerance policy on child labour and the grouping attaches great importance to your (Bangladesh) commitment to fully eliminate child labour by 2025."
Expressing concerns over the Digital Security Act, she said, "The EU is concerned about parts of the application of the Digital Security Act; the consequences have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, notably in the case of journalists."
"I am very pleased to hear from the law minister that he has undertaken a process to amend the law and I think it's up to us from the European parliament side to make sure that the future amendment is in line with international standards," she added.
She also noted that the full implementation of labour law legislation also requires a well-functioning and independent judiciary system.
Among other conditionalities, GSP+ requires the full implementation of the UN anti-corruption convention, she reminded.
"In addition, I want to welcome the existence of the minimum wage in Bangladesh, but it must be set at a level so as to ensure a living wage across the economic sectors," she added.
While replying to a question on how satisfied the team is on the completion of the labour roadmap, she said, "There is a lot of satisfaction but now let's say the last step must be taken on the EPZ registration/legislation on child labour and what the government brings to the parliament on the review of the labour law is fully in line with the international standards."
Asked to comment on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent call to the western countries to give up the policy of imposing sanctions, she said "The EU is not proposing any sanction on Bangladesh. I think it's a misconception to blame the West for the situation we are in because indeed the root cause is that we had to defend peaceful international order in a situation of a serious violation of state sovereignty and independence."
Responding to a question on the scope of energy import from Russia by Bangladesh amid the global energy crisis, Maximillian Krah, another EU delegation member, said, "From what I know is that we do not push you to join sanctions. This is your sovereign decision."
The EU is the largest export destination for Bangladeshi products. The export increased from 9 billion euros to 19 billion euros in 2019.
The EU has been providing duty-free quota-free access to Bangladesh. As Bangladesh graduates from the LDC, the facility will go away. However, the country can be eligible under the new privilege called GSP Plus but that will require stringent conditions, such as improving human rights and the labour rights situation.
The EU delegation is visiting Bangladesh to assess the country's situation. The delegation members also talked to employees' associations, trade unions and civil society organisations and visited a textile and a pharmaceutical factory to assess compliance levels before departing on 20 July.
EU Ambassador in Dhaka Charles Whitley was present on the occasion, which was moderated by DCAB President Rezaul Karim Lotus.