The European Union (EU), the largest export destination for Bangladesh, has now come up with another condition that the country must ensure human rights to remain eligible for the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) facility in their market.
Earlier, the EU urged the Bangladesh government to improve the labour rights situation for the continuation of the duty-free trade facility.
Now, the availability of the GSP facility – given under the EU's EBA (Everything but Arms) arrangement – after 2023 depends on the protection of labour and human rights, according to a letter sent to the government.
The EU has suggested that the government formulate a time-bound action plan to address human rights issues, complying with the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council.
The letter from the EU Embassy in Dhaka, signed on 29 October, was sent to Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, Labour Secretary KM Abdus Salam and Commerce Secretary Md Zafar Uddin on 3 November.
The letter was signed by Ewa Synowiec, director of Directorate of Trade, EU, Jordi Curren Gotor, director of Directorate of Employment, EU and Paola Pampaloni, deputy managing director of European External Action Service- Asia Pacific.
It said, "Ensuring that Bangladesh aligns fully with international standards on human and labour rights would also be important in view of the EU's legislative work on the future GSP regulation and for the conditionalities for the granting of preferences after 2023.
"Strong deliverables from a vigorous and results-oriented EBA enhanced engagement process are necessary for Bangladesh to continue to benefit from tariff-free exports to the EU."
As a least developed country, Bangladesh enjoys duty-free access for all products except arms to the EU market. Even if Bangladesh graduates to a developing country in 2024, this facility will continue till 2027.
The EU reviews the EBA programme every 10 years. The current EBA will expire on 31 December 2023. The EU is now working on the next scheme.
While commenting on the EU letter, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told The Business Standard, "We will handle issues in a timely manner. There is no reason to worry about."
Earlier, in November 2018, the UN Human Rights Commission sent a letter to the then foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali to implement the Universal Periodic Review.
The review includes the right to freedom of expression, political rights of citizens, including the right to gather for meetings and rallies. It also calls for stopping extrajudicial killings, repealing Section 32 of the Digital Security Act, ensuring freedom of media.
On condition of anonymity, an official at the commerce ministry said the EU for the first time has sought Bangladesh's plan over implementing the UPR on human rights. It has never linked the issue of human rights with Bangladesh's trade facilitation previously.
Following the EU's imposition of the conditions for Bangladesh's future EBA benefits, the ministries concerned have started working on making an action plan, including an amendment to relevant laws. The foreign ministry is leading the way. The EU will also arrange a workshop in Dhaka on the UPR implementation.
Meanwhile, the foreign minister blamed the media and non-government organisations for the latest stance of the EU making human rights issues a precondition for Bangladesh to avail duty-free trade facilities.
"There are 193 countries in the world. Bad things happen everywhere. But no one talks about those countries as their people hardly bother about such issues," said the minister.
"Some journalists and NGOs in our country are always busy with such issues. They do this because they get money from abroad. With all these, they repeatedly go to the foreigners and provoke them. That is why foreigners talk about it. The less we talk about it, the better it will be for us," he added.
When contacted, Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, former president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said human rights, labour rights and freedom of expressions all are interrelated and Bangladesh regularly addresses issues regarding all these rights.
All the issues, including human rights, are discussed in international labour conferences where the EU plays a vital role. But they have never raised the human rights issue as a condition for getting or continuing GSP benefits in Bangladesh, he added.
"Human rights issues are now becoming crucial with Bangladesh moving out of LDC status. We hope that the government will definitely give importance to the issue to continue the GSP facility in the EU," he added.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, said it is not at all surprising that the EU has clearly linked their business interest, especially the prospect of extension of GSP facilities, with labour rights as well as other pledges that Bangladesh has made under the UPR.
Bangladesh must realise that compliance with international standards of human rights, in general, and labour rights, in particular, is as important as business relations to the EU, he added.
So, the government should take the EU expectations seriously not merely for promoting exports to the EU countries but also for sustaining the country's credibility before the international community, Dr Iftekharuzzaman commented.
What the EU letter says
The letter of the EU officials said, "We reiterate our strong appeal for concrete and timely progress on the labour rights action plan, as well as on the Universal Periodic Review recommendations implementation plan."
Stating that Bangladesh needs to take decisive steps and lasting measures to ensure human and labour rights, it said, "We are closely following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Bangladesh's socio-economic situation and we are deeply convinced that a reformed and sound labour and human rights framework would further strengthen the Bangladeshi economy and make it more resilient."
"The provision of information about Bangladesh's plan and actions for the implementation of the UPR recommendations is of equal importance. Human rights issues are an integral part of EBA enhanced engagement," the letter added.
According to the letter, ensuring human and labour rights is business and investment-friendly.
"We are ready to provide necessary assistance within the context of our future cooperation programme 2021-2027, for Bangladesh to comply with the UN and the ILO conventions, notably on labour rights, as well as addressing inequalities, women and children rights, access to justice and the need for a better business and investment climate."
Work on to amend labour laws and regulations
Bangladesh will have to announce the time-bound plan for the implementation of the EU's proposed 9-point action plan on labour rights by the end of November. The secretary of commerce, foreign affairs and labour held a meeting on 1 October on this issue.
Labour Secretary KM Abdus Salam told Business Standard that work is underway to amend labour laws and regulations to implement the EU's proposed areas for actions to protect workers' rights.
"Work is underway with the representatives of the European Union, the International Labour Organisation, relevant government ministries, employers and workers to formulate action plans in line with EU recommendations. The government is committed to protecting workers' rights," he said.
The EU's 9-point action plan stipulates that child labour be eliminated by 2025, workers be given easy access to trade unions and CBAs, workers in one factory be allowed to join trade unions of other factories. It also mentions that cases in the labour court should be disposed of quickly.
More than half of Bangladesh's export goods go each year to the 28 EU countries through duty-free facilities. In 2019, Bangladesh's exports to Europe amounted to about €19 billion.