Rights group asks EU to call out Bangladesh on workers' rights
May 2, Dhaka: In April 2015, Cecilia Malmstroem, the European Union’s trade commissioner, made a compelling speech calling for respect for garment workers’ rights in Bangladesh in remembrance of the catastrophic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory, in which 1,100 workers died in 2013.
One year later, the issues she raised remain largely unaddressed.
After Rana Plaza, Bangladesh and the EU agreed on the Sustainability Compact - a set of commitments that the Bangladesh government made on labour rights, building safety, and labour inspections.
In last year’s speech, Malmstroem called on Bangladesh to make progress on the Compact and warned that the EU might revisit whether to continue extending key trade preferences if there was no improvement.
This is the time of year when workers around Europe gather to celebrate and focus on workers’ rights. And it’s time for the EU and other trade partners to make clear to Bangladesh that it means business.
Unfortunately, the situation on the ground in Bangladesh remains grim, especially when it comes to workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively. The European Commission issued a statement on 24 April saying “essential reforms” were still needed for “effective respect of trade union rights.”
In 2014 and 2015, we interviewed dozens of Bangladeshi garment workers who said that factory officials or their associates threatened and beat workers when they tried to form unions.
Women union leaders told us about being beaten by factory hired thugs in the same rooms where the factories receive overseas garment buyers. Some said factory managers and their hired thugs threatened rape if the workers tried to unionise.
The Bangladesh government promised to amend its Labour Act to bring it in line with international standards under the Sustainability Compact, but that has not happened.
The law requires an unreasonably high minimum membership of 30 percent of workers to form a factory-level union; limits unions’ right to freely elect representatives; gives the government vague administrative powers to cancel union registration; and severely limits the right to strike.
A January Bangladesh government update on the Sustainability Compact makes no mention of efforts to reform this law.
Bangladesh authorities have touted an increase in the number of trade unions registered since 2013 as proof of their efforts. But the truth is more sinister.
Solidarity Center, a non-profit organization aligned with the US AFL-CIO labour federation, estimates that authorities approved fewer than half of the union applications filed since 2013.
An annual breakdown compiled by the Solidarity Center showed that in 2015 labour authorities approved 61 union registration applications, while rejecting 148. The Dhaka Joint Directorate of Labour alone rejected 73 percent of applications in 2015.
Malmstroem rightly said that Bangladesh must meet a “short-term” commitment to adopt Labour Rules, spelling out regulations to implement the Labour Act.
In September, the Bangladesh government appeared to meet this request. But the rules created new legal impediments to labour rights, with vague and arbitrary procedures for unionization.
Moreover, there is little transparency for how the government is applying these rules and making decisions that directly impact the lives of workers trying to defend their rights.
Malmstroem also urged Bangladesh authorities to investigate and take action against unfair labour practices. The European Commission’s recent statement noted “an urgent need to swiftly investigate and prosecute all acts of anti-union discrimination” and for “unfair labour practices to be effectively prevented.”
The Bangladesh government’s January update on the Compact states that unfair labour practices will be investigated and action taken within 30 days.
But it provides no information on how many complaints were received, how these were investigated, and how or whether factories were held accountable. In fact, the Labour Rules do not spell out a process for dealing with unfair labor practice complaints. Workers’ rights organizations in Bangladesh say the complaints go into a black hole of government inaction.
How long can the EU just issue statements?
The EU needs to urgently set clear deadlines for Bangladesh to implement rights respecting reforms to its Labour Act, Rules, and day to day implementation.
The EU should also demand meaningful data from Bangladesh to enable foreign trade partners to assess the government’s progress in meeting its obligations to respect labor rights.
If Bangladesh doesn’t, Malmstroem and the EU should tell Dhaka that continuation of trade preferences for Bangladesh are at risk. That may be the only sort of message that will wake up prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her government that the EU expects pledges on labour rights to be kept.
Claire Ivers is the senior EU advocate at Human Rights Watch
The Oslo Times