The European Commission remains concerned about Bangladesh’s commitments to align its labour laws with international standards as required under the conditions of its current trading relationship with the EU, despite the country successfully ratifying relevant International Labour Conventions linked to forced labour and the minimum working age.
During a discussion in the European Parliament’s international trade committee on Wednesday, Ulrich Weigl from the commission’s directorate-general for trade said that the EU executive wants to see “more and earlier delivery on labour laws and regular reporting” from Dhaka.
Preparing graduation to GSP+
Bangladesh currently benefits from the Everything But Arms arrangement under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences, which grants the country duty free access to the EU for all its products except for arms and ammunition.
According to the European Commission, the EU is Bangladesh’s main trading partner, accounting for around 19.5% of Bangladesh’s total trade in 2020. Clothing makes up over 90% of the EU’s total imports from the Asian country.
However, in 2017 the EU launched an enhanced engagement procedure with the Asian country with the aim of resolving certain lingering issues related to human and labour rights. If these issues continue, Bangladesh risks having its EBA status rescinded by the EU.
Following consultations with the EU and ILO, last year Dhaka published its National Action Plan on the Labour Sector which takes the form of 5-year plan containing specific legislative actions with timelines, one of which is to eliminate child labour by 2025.
Weigl today emphasised that Bangladesh’s full alignment with international standards “remains crucial” in view of the EU’s ongoing revision of the GSP regulation which will enter into force in 2024.
The official also pointed out that Dhaka is due to graduate from being a least developed country in 2026, and after a three-year transitional period will lose its EBA tariff preferences. The commission is proposing to expand the list of conventions that GSP+ countries need to ratify from 27 to 32 and accelerate the preference withdrawal process in case of non-compliance.
“If it (Bangladesh) wants to benefit from GSP status after graduation from LDC status, the government must demonstrate concrete progress on labour and human rights,” Weigl explained.
Involvement of social partners
His colleague Lluis Prats from the commission’s employment directorate stressed the importance of regular reporting on progress from Dhaka and highlighted that there have already been some delays with regard to certain legislative processes.
He gave as an example the reform of the Export Processing Zones labour act, which the commission believes should be completed before June 2025, as set out in the NAP.
“Bangladesh has been unclear about whether it will meet its commitments in full and bring them in compliance with ILO standards,” he said.
Prats also stressed the importance of involving the social partners in the law-making process but cautioned how the Bangladeshi government has in the past referred to social partners agreeing to amendments which differ from international standards.
In his words, involving social partners should not “exempt (Bangladesh) from the responsibility” of aligning its laws with international standards.
The commission also explained how it will continue to work with Bangladesh on increasing workplace safety and that from June the country will be obliged to close factories which infringe the new rules.
The Bangladeshi ambassador to the EU H.E. Mr. Mahbub Hassan Saleh, who also participated in the meeting, said that amending the labour code is a “colossal task” and stressed the challenge of reaching out to Bangladesh’s 170 million people in the most densely populated country in the world.
“The journey has not been smooth, and we do not expect it to be,” he said.
“We have our own set of challenges, and we recognise there are areas we can improve,” continued the ambassador. “Furthermore, we believe it is a continuous journey of improvement.”
The commission concluded by saying that it was confident that Dhaka will move forward its various deadlines in the NAP where requested and that the coming months will be decisive.
The EU executive is due to produce a report by the end of the year which will analyse progress made under the enhanced engagement procedure and the country’s overall performance under the EBA scheme.
The chair of the parliament’s trade committee Bernd Lange added that a delegation from the parliamentary committee is also expected to visit the country in July, the main purpose of which will “probably” be the implementation of the NAP.