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Labor Violations Could Cost Bangladesh Free Trade Status

Bangladesh is back in hot water with labor unions, and now three of them are calling the country’s eligibility for certain trade benefits into question.

IndustriALL Global Union, UNI Global Union and the International Trade Union Confederation said the latest crackdown on garment workers seeking higher wages should make the European Union reconsider Bangladesh’s eligibility under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program.

Workers striking for better wages—nearly three times better than the 5,300 taka ($67) they currently earn—stopped work for at least a week in December and as many as 55 factories were forced to close during the strike.

Among other requests, workers were seeking a monthly minimum wage of 16,000 taka ($201), but employers weren’t having it. Instead, they deemed the workers’ strike illegal and as many as 1,500 employees were relieved of their posts. Some even faced charges and have been blacklisted from getting other jobs in the sector, according to IndustriALL.

The minimum wage in Bangladesh hasn’t increased since the 77 percent jump in 2013 that got it to the current $67 a month, and as the unions argue, costs for housing, basic commodities and medical care, at the same time, “is spiraling.”

And what’s of perhaps the most concern is that despite the Rana Plaza tragedy that prompted forward motion in improving working conditions and wages in Bangladesh, this reaction to the strike appears to be a step backward, according to IndustriALL.

“When workers went on strike for higher wages in December, at least eleven union leaders and workers’ rights advocates were detained under the Special Powers Act 1974, a wartime emergency law which authorizes detention without charge for up to six months,” a statement on IndustriALL’s site says. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made assurances of the country’s efforts to improve its leading export sector and remain compliant, however, the union added, “Her government and the country’s powerful garment factory owners are using the wage strike as a pretext to crack down even further on the labor movement.”

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Though laws are in place stipulating that workers in Bangladesh can organize and form unions, they are often punished in one form or another for trying to exercise those rights, according to IndustriALL.

“The Registrar of Trade Unions arbitrarily rejects registration applications from the most active and independent trade union federations and a severe climate of anti-union violence prevails, coupled with near total impunity for the perpetrators,” the unions’ statement said.

These things considered, the unions charge that Bangladesh is in breach of the labor condition under the EU’s GSP Everything But Arms program.

The EU is Bangladesh’s main trading partner and its GSP program allows Bangladesh to import goods to the country duty free under its Everything But Arms arrangement, which allows goods other than arms and ammunition, into the region without duties and quotas.

After Rana Plaza, the EU launched a Sustainability Compact for Bangladesh, outlining three pillars Bangladesh must adhere to in order to retain its trade privileges: respect for labor rights, structural integrity of buildings and occupational safety and health, and responsible business conduct.

The unions, however, argue that the Sustainability compact is “dead.”

“It is clear that the government [of Bangladesh] has no intention to comply with its terms,” the unions said, calling for the EU to immediately launch an investigation under the GSP. “Only the potential loss of market access will demonstrate to the government of Bangladesh that Europe is serious about workers’ rights.”