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European Parliament Urges Bangladesh to Improve Working Conditions

The European Parliament this week passed a resolution saying Bangladesh needs to step up efforts to prevent the exploitation of textile workers. The legislative body of the European Union said textile workers in Bangladesh, many of whom are young women, suffer long working hours, low wages, uncertainty and hazardous conditions. Trade union leaders are often persecuted.

The 2013 Sustainability Compact aimed at preventing tragedies like the April 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, has resulted in moderate improvements in workplace safety, but respect of workers’ rights is lagging behind, the EP noted in a non-binding resolution.

(Read more about working conditions in Bangladesh: Bangladesh Accord Says Just 4 Percent of Factories Fully Remediated)

Reviewing the implementation of the Compact, the EP suggests several measures to be taken to improve the situation.

The government of Bangladesh should swiftly amend the 2013 Labor Act to ensure freedom of association, collective bargaining and to recruit more factory inspectors, the EP said. The mandate of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a platform including many EU companies, should be renewed after its expiration of May 2018 and international brands should take their corporate social responsibility policies more seriously to ensure decent working conditions.

Bernd Lange, chair of the EP’s Committee on International Trade, said, “Despite some progress in recent years, the situation on the ground remains worrisome. We are very concerned about the lack of meaningful progress in implementing the commitments of the Sustainability Compact by Bangladesh. Countries, which disrespect fundamental rights at work, should not be encouraged by benefitting from unrestricted access to our market. The government of Bangladesh will need to demonstrate that it is willing and able to deliver on its own promises and the demands of the international community.”

Sajjad Karim, rapporteur, or liaison for South Asia at the EP, said, “EU trade policy is our soft power. But it’s very powerful and based on values, meaning we demand our trading partners respect core principles in the areas of human, labor and environmental rights. I have done all I can as Chair of the INTA Monitoring Group for South Asia to get Bangladesh to comply. It seems they are not listening. We cannot keep issuing appeals and statements every year – we have to see tangible results on the ground for privileged market access to be continued.”

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Bangladesh benefits from the most favorable regime under the EU’s trade preferences that grants duty and quota-free access to the EU market, except on arms and ammunition. In July 2013, in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy, the EU took the initiative of launching a Sustainability Compact for Bangladesh to improve labor rights and factory safety. The initiative brings together the EU, the Bangladesh government, the U.S. and  Canada – the main markets for Bangladeshi garment production – as well as the International Labor Organization.

The EU is Bangladesh’s top trading partner, absorbing 46.7 percent of its exports in 2015. It is the world’s second largest garment producer, with the textile sector providing almost 81% of total exports, with about 60% of that going to the EU.

The Clean Clothes Campaign is urging members of the EP to undertake a trade investigation into labor rights abuses.

The CCC said recent months have seen a significant upturn in violent repression. In December, spontaneous wage strikes were met with mass dismissals, raids on trade union offices and the arrest of over 30 labor leaders. While an agreement in February ended detentions, labor leaders continue to face charges and thereby, a possible prison sentence, the CCC said, and workers have still not been reinstated following their unjustified dismissals.

Moreover, recent examples of violence and death threats against labor activists in Chittagong show that the climate for labor advocates’ work remains extremely dangerous, said CCC, adding that it was “highly concerned” about recent physical attacks, threats and criminal charges against leaders and members of the Bangladesh Industrial and Garment Union Federation.

Ben Vanpeperstraete of CCC said, “It is vital that the European Union starts a clear investigation into whether the Government of Bangladesh is complying with its obligations under the Everything But Arms trade agreement.”