The Everything but Arms (EBA) review mission of the European Union (EU) expressed concern over Bangladesh’s failure to implement the National Action Plan (NAP) including investigating police harassment and violence against workers and training industrial police on how to deal peacefully with workers’ protests and strikes.
In a recent letter sent to the foreign ministry of Bangladesh, the EU mission said, “We remain concerned about the lack of progress on key areas. To meet Bangladesh’s commitments in the NAP, a significant increase in efforts is still needed.”
An EU team is on a five-day visit in Bangladesh starting Sunday.
The EU mission also urged Bangladesh to ensure human rights along with labour rights to continue the EBA benefits and the granting of Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Plus benefits after Bangladesh’s graduation from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status.
The letter was sent on 30 October, days before an EU delegation’s visit to Bangladesh to engage with relevant stakeholders on the country’s labour sector.
During their visit on 12-16 November, the EU delegation will advocate for measures to enhance worker safety in Bangladesh’s factories, bring the country’s labour laws into full compliance with international labour standards, increase the number of labour inspectors, and eradicate child labour as soon as possible.
Deputy Managing Director for Asia and the Pacific at the European External Action Service (EEAS) Paola Pampaloni will lead the three-member delegation.
They will have meetings with labour, commerce and foreign secretaries of the government apart from their talks with other relevant stakeholders.
In addition, the EU delegation is expected to engage with key government officials, including Law Minister Anisul Haque, Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi, and State Minister for Labour and Employment Begum Monnujan Sufian.
The visit is aimed at taking “stock of progress” in implementing the National Action Plan for the labour sector, EU Ambassador to Bangladesh Charles Whiteley told UNB.
The EU delegation’s visit to Bangladesh coincides with the ongoing protests by garment workers demanding a significant increase in the minimum wage. These protests have been met with a forceful response from law enforcement agencies, resulting in three worker fatalities. Additionally, thousands of workers have been named as “unnamed” defendants in approximately 29 cases in Gazipur and Savar.
Commerce Ministry officials said the ongoing labour unrest and the use of force by law enforcement agencies to suppress them are likely to be prominent topics during the EU delegation’s meetings.
‘Bangladesh lags behind in NAP implementation’
In the letter, the EU said the compliance with human rights and international labour standards is not only a condition for maintaining the existing EBA preferences, it is also of utmost importance that Bangladesh fully implement the NAP as per the stipulated timelines since this will be the key criteria in the assessment of a possible GSP plus application by Bangladesh.
“The implementation of key human rights conventions are likewise a deciding factor for maintaining EBA preferences for Bangladesh,” the letter reads.
The NAP is a time-bound roadmap submitted by Bangladesh to implement the EU’s 9-point action plan to continue the EBA scheme. Bangladesh provides regular updates to the EU on the implementation of the action plan every six months.
After reviewing the reports, the EU said Bangladesh is lagging behind in the implementation of the NAP in several areas. They even mentioned that Bangladesh is not sharing various information related to labour rights with the EU.
As per the letter, the EU would like to know what steps Bangladesh will take in the coming months for the full implementation of the NAP and how much progress has been made in implementing the conditions for which the deadlines have already passed.
Mentioning information on police harassments and violence against workers in Bangladesh, the EU said, “There has not been any follow-up with regards to the state of investigation of incidents of workers being injured, killed or stopped from attending trade union meetings as raised in our letter of 21 April 2022.”
The EU said little information was so far sent to the EU since 2022. The EU would highly welcome substantive, tangible and effective progress so that they could discuss concrete cases where actions of investigations have been taken and a strategy to prevent crimes against workers was formulated.
According to the letter, trade unions in Bangladesh continued to complain to the ILO about very brutal repression of protests and strikes and are pushing for an ILO commission of inquiry.
On labour laws
The EU has raised concerns regarding Bangladesh’s labour laws, including impediments to freedom of association in certain sectors, excessive limitations on the right to strike, and penalties for illegal strikes.
The EU noted that the proposed reduction in the minimum membership requirement to form a trade union at the factory level, from 20% to 15% for factories with over 3000 workers, falls short of the expectations outlined in the NAP.
To ensure full compatibility with labour laws, the EU has imposed conditions on the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones’ Labour Act and the Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (Beza) Act. The government has amended the Beza Act but has yet to address the EPZ Act.
Lack of labour inspectors
Bangladesh has fallen behind in appointing labour inspectors as outlined in the NAP. The EU has inquired about the measures Bangladesh intends to take to recruit qualified labour inspectors.
The NAP mandated filling 255 labour inspector positions by the end of 2022 and an additional 942 positions by the end of 2023. However, Bangladesh has not been able to meet these targets due to a shortage of qualified candidates.
“But the government is very far from these realistic targets. Only 95 new inspectors have joined. The remaining posts have been requested but not yet approved. There is no indication in the NAP how the government of Bangladesh will meet the commitments on labour inspectors by end of 2022 and end of 2023 respectively,” EU said.
In September, the European Parliament resolution expressed concern about Bangladesh’s human rights and said, “Bangladesh must uphold the country’s international commitments, particularly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
It said authorities must also ensure that civil society organisations can access foreign grants.
“An EBA enhanced engagement process remains ongoing with Bangladesh owing to its serious violations of international conventions,” members of European Parliaments recalled.