- Existing EBA to expire in 2023
- In November 2019, EU gave a 9-point action plan to Bangladesh government
- In November 2020, government submitted roadmap to EU
- In February 2021, EU expressed concern over the roadmap
- EU thinks elimination of child labour not possible without 100% primary school enrollment
- It also asks for amendment to Bangladesh Labour Act, EPZ Labour Act
European Commission officials have expressed "serious frustration and concern" over Bangladesh's roadmap to address labour rights issues in order to retain zero-tariff facility on all products except arms, the Brussels embassy told the foreign and labour ministries.
The officials feel that the Bangladesh government in its roadmap showed a lack of commitment to implement actions suggested by the European Union to eliminate child labour by ensuring 100% primary school enrolment and improving the standard of primary education and schools, according to officials of the labour ministry.
The EU thinks elimination of child labour will not be possible unless 100% enrolment and quality education are ensured at the primary level.
Nonetheless, whether Bangladesh will continue to enjoy duty-free access to its largest export destination after the expiry of the existing Everything but Arms (EBA) initiative in 2023 depends on the roadmap prepared by the government to implement the EU's 9-point action plan on improving the labour situation here.
In a virtual meeting with Mahbub Hasan Saleh, Bangladesh ambassador to Brussels, on 25 February this year, Jordi Curell, European Commission's directorate general for employment, social affairs and inclusion (DG-Employment), expressed frustration and concern over the roadmap submitted by Bangladesh.
The meeting was joined by Buenker Benedikt, policy officer of the European Commission; Luis Prats, head of unit, International Issues, at the European Commission; and Md Safiul Azam, commercial counsellor of Bangladesh in Brussels.
In an email sent to the foreign affairs and labour ministries on 28 February, Md Safiul Azam said, "While discussing on the roadmap, Curell inter alia stressed upon three issues in particular: reformation of the EPZ Act in alignment with the ILO Convention/labour standard, eradication of all forms of child labour and education."
During the course of discussion, Jordi Curell expressed his frustration over the issues of education – one of the components of the roadmap – having construed it being no longer a priority for Bangladesh, he added.
With the fast approaching expiry of the existing EBA initiative, 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 EU had provided the government with the action plan in the last week of November 2019.
A year later, in November 2020, Bangladesh submitted a roadmap for the implementation of the 9-point action plan provided by the EU that include amendments to the Bangladesh Labour Act and the EPZ Labour Act, elimination of child labour in all sectors, and settlement of cases pending with labour courts.
Government's commitment under question
Officials at the labour ministry said the EU in its action plan on the elimination of child labour included a point – "School Participation and Quality of Schools" – and asked the Bangladesh government to prepare a roadmap to ensure 100% primary school enrolment of children as well as enhance the quality of primary education and schools.
The government in its roadmap effectively skipped this point by talking about various ongoing programmes in primary education and this left the European Commission officials dissatisfied, according to the ministry officials.
In the wake of the EU's frustration, the Bangladesh Embassy in Brussels has recommended devising a formula through the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education to ensure School Participation and Quality of Schools in accordance with the 9-point action plan of the EU.
Labour Secretary Abdus Salam said, "The EU has asked us to eradicate child labour. We shall do that.
"But they say only the eradication of child labour is not enough and that we need to make sure 100% of children are admitted to primary schools as well as that we ensure quality education and quality schools for them."
In his email, commercial counsellor Azam also wrote, "Given the serious frustration and concerns of director Jordi Curell and the office of DG Employment over the issue of education as a component of the 9-point action plan, and particularly after discussion for months, it appears that an acceptable common ground needs to be found to keep the conversations going forward.
"Presenting convincing narratives on the overall initiatives of the government to ensure [an] achievable level of primary education for all would perhaps help to address their frustration and concern to some extent. This might be a possible way to address this instead of deleting the point from the roadmap, which would give a very wrong signal to them."
School enrolment reduces child labour: Experts
Manzoor Ahmed, educationist and professor emeritus at Brac University, told TBS that experiences in different countries have shown that child labour falls off if children are brought to school and retained.
When the school environment attracts children, they do not stop going to school and do not drop out of school, he observed.
"When children do not go to school or their parents are reluctant to send them to school, they engage in risky activities. Child labour can be reduced if quality education and appropriate learning environment is ensured at low cost," he added.
Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office, told TBS that if it is possible to ensure quality education for children, parents are encouraged to send children to school. "If children get quality education in schools, their parents do not remove them from school for work," he argued.
Once the quality of an educational institution is ensured, children enjoy going to the school and become interested in staying there during school hours. Therefore, ensuring quality schools and quality education will truly reduce child labour and school dropouts, said Zahid Hussain.
Why there was no roadmap on education
Explaining the reason behind not presenting a roadmap to implement the actions suggested by the EU regarding education, Labour Secretary Abdus Salam said, "The labour ministry cannot come up with a roadmap on education. If we prepare a roadmap [on education], we will be held accountable if the roadmap is not complied with. So, we did not mention any plan on education in the roadmap. We highlighted the initiatives taken up by the government to expand education."
Salam went on to say that negotiations are going on over the EBA and the implementation of the action plan given by the EU. There will also be discussions on ensuring quality education. Then, if necessary, the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, with the help of Unicef, will formulate an action plan in this regard."
Negotiations on to amend EPZ Labour Act
The EU has asked for amendments to the EPZ Labour Act, guaranteeing workers the right to trade unions and the CBA in accordance with the ILO Convention.
In its meeting with the Bangladesh ambassador in Brussels, the European Commission expressed frustration over this matter as well.
Bangladesh has not made any commitment in this regard in the roadmap. The labour ministry mentioned the existing EPZ law has protected the rights of the workers there.
The roadmap points out that different industrial units operating in the same EPZ 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 separate entities of the 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.
In this regard, Labor Secretary Abdus Salam said negotiations have been going on for a long time about amending the EPZ law.
The labour ministry will reach a framework agreement with the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority (Bepza) so that it (the ministry) can inspect EPZ factories, Abdus Salam, maintained, adding Bepza is working with the ILO on these issues.