Bangladesh has drafted a roadmap to improve labour standards – as asked by the European Union (EU) – to stay eligible for zero-tariff export facilities in the EU market for 10 more years.
The existing "Everything but Arms" (EBA) initiative will expire in 2023, and the EU, the destination of $18.7 billion or more than a half of the country's total exports, is reviewing Bangladesh's labour standards and human rights situation to include the country in the next phase.
The roadmap – already sent to the EU within the November deadline – elaborates the actions that the government has planned to execute between 2020 and 2026.
State Minister for Labour and Employment Begum Monnujan Sufian told The Business Standard on Sunday, "We have sent a roadmap to the EU, for implementing its proposed conditions in a time-specific action plan."
"We will execute it on a priority basis in the country's labour-intensive areas," she added.
The government agrees to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) protocols on minimum age and forced labour by June this year, but seeks time till 2025 to amend the labour law and rules, and adapt EPZ labour rules.
The labour law will be amended further by 2026, incorporating changes in the existing labour rules to comply with the ILO and EU labour standards.
As per the ILO conventions, all aged under 15 years are children and they cannot be engaged in any job. But the child age limit is 14 in Bangladesh's law, which lists 38 types of jobs as hazardous for all aged under 18 years.
Bangladesh promises to eliminate child labour in all its forms by 2025 and its worst forms by 2021 as it sets December this year to ratify ILO Convention 138 on minimum age and modify the action plan accordingly.
The state minister said, "We also had a meeting with EU representatives and workers' leaders in Dhaka. If we keep to what they demand, there will be neither any owners nor any workers in Bangladesh. We will implement what is possible."
"We will not keep any laws and rules that are in conflict with the ILO conventions. For that reason, relevant sections will be amended," she added.
The EU is so far fairly happy after getting the roadmap, but the government also has to think about who complains to them, Monnujan said.
In a letter earlier, the EU suggested that the government formulate a time-specific action plan in nine areas to stay eligible for the generalised system of preferences extended under the EBA initiative.
An EU delegation was scheduled to arrive in Dhaka in March 2020 to finalise the action plan, which was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Vietnam, one of the key contenders of Bangladesh in the European market, has already amended its labour code with effect from 1 January, ensuring equal pay and decent work for both male and female workers, and preserving workers' rights to organise. The changes have brought Vietnam's labour law close to the ILO and EU standards.
Seeking anonymity, an additional secretary to the labour ministry, told TBS that the roadmap for implementing the nine-point action plan was sent to the EU in the last week of November with approval from the government's high command.
As per the roadmap, the Bangladesh government will develop a guideline to handle child trafficking cases in the next five years. The government will have a child labour survey next year and the relevant unit in the labour ministry will be strengthened.
Bangladesh insists on maintaining the "existing independent system" for labour management in export processing zones (EPZs) to protect the unique features of those exclusive zones under a different authority, namely the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (Bepza).
To clear the backlog of cases on labour disputes, a Herculean task, the government seeks time up to December this year to make three newly-established labour courts fully functional with full manpower recruitment through the Public Service Commission.
An official of the Dhaka labour court says around 17,000 cases are pending with three labour courts in Dhaka.
The EU, in its letter to the government earlier, called for steps to eliminate the backlog of cases at labour courts, including in the Dhaka metropolitan area. By December 2022, the government has planned to establish a sufficient number of new labour courts in Narayanganj, Gazipur, Cumilla and Faridpur and in other relevant districts with complete recruitment of manpower.
Under the action plan to be implemented by 2026, the government promises to amend 2015 labour rules by June this year to comply with ILO standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining agents. It also plans to amend the labour act further and adopt EPZ labour rules by December 2022.
It claims the EPZ labour act 2019 upholds the rights and privileges of the workers as well as ensures a congenial, safe and decent working environment in EPZs.
However, it adds, "There is always scope for further improvement and reformation of existing laws and provision," says the roadmap for implementation of EU's action plans to review if Bangladesh is eligible for renewed EBA from 2023.
The government pledges to combat unfair labour practices and discrimination and provide legal protection to victims. It decides to raise fines for employers for violating labour rights.
Now, the penalty is equal for both employers and workers, and the EU presses for a higher penalty for offences of employers.
To improve industrial relationships, it plans to establish an independent conciliation and arbitration system by 2026, apart from promoting social dialogues incorporating three parties - workers, employers and ministries.
It pledges to simplify the trade union registration process with a database by March this year.
The EU wants the government to establish the post of an independent ombudsperson for trade union registration, but Bangladesh finds it not feasible with the country's socioeconomic context.
In response to the EU's concern about the backlog of cases in labour courts, the government agrees to appoint enough judges and human resources in labour courts and appellate tribunals to expedite disposals of labour-related disputes.
The roadmap divulges an elaborate plan on making labour inspectorate fully functional, recruiting 255 labour inspectors by March this year and adding 942 more by December next year.
The EU wants Bangladesh to develop a standard operating procedure (SOP) on labour compliances and investigation, and incorporate the SOP in the labour law.
Bangladesh, though pledges a unique helpline for EPZ workers to lodge complaints about rights violation, feels EPZs need to maintain an independent mechanism to resolve labour-related complaints.
The roadmap points out that different industrial units operating in the same EPZs are producing different and diversified products, ranging from readymade garments to high-tech and high-end products like camera lenses and automobile parts. Each industrial unit differs from the other in the manufacturing process, products, skills, and wages.
"Considering such situation and keeping in view of the separate entity of two laws [Bangladesh Labour Act and EPZ Labour Act], Bepza solicits kind cooperation, valuable suggestions and technical assistance from the ILO for the improvement of the existing independent system, instead of other systems," it reads.
Labour leader Nazma Akhter said all the areas for action – proposed by the EU – to protect labour rights are important. But, exporters will not be interested in investing more to ensure labour rights and a safe working environment when major buyer countries are reducing prices of apparel items.
So, the EU should increase import prices of readymade garments.
Talking about the introduction of trade unions and collective bargaining agents in EPZs, she said the United States and the EU have long been pressing for it. Their logic is that one country cannot have two laws.
It can be resolved through discussions with these countries at the diplomatic level, Nazma mentioned.
"It will be very difficult for Bangladesh to eliminate child labour in all sectors by 2026. Because the children of poor families are employed for food and study. It is not possible to build a child labour free country without improving their living standards," she added.