* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.EU should make a stand towards the Bangladeshi government to improve labour conditions
Ben Vanpeperstraete is lobby and advocacy coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign.
In April 2013, the Rana Plaza collapse put the spotlight on labour conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry. What it revealed was ugly: notoriously dangerous factories and low wages, workers were prevented from organizing, those unions that did exist faced violence that went unpunished, and workers that died in lesser-known factory incidents were left without any compensation.
The collapse provided a wake-up call, and an urgency to improve these dire working conditions. Within weeks, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was launched by trade unions and brands, successfully beginning to make factories safer. Also governments moved: three months later, the Sustainability Compact was signed between the Bangladeshi government, the International Labour Organization, and the EU (later joined by the United States and Canada) with a range of sweeping commitments on labour law reform and freedom of association. And two years later, the government of Bangladesh agreed to work with the ILO to establish a national employment injury insurance system.
After the shock, business as usual for Bangladesh?
Yet five years on, as the initial shock and engagement has subsided, the actual results are sobering. Last year, labour advocates concluded that Bangladesh had made little to no progress on the Sustainability Compact commitments. Freedom of association was violated in a crackdown on trade unions after spontaneous wage protests in December 2016. Trade unionists were harassed across the country, 34 of them were charged and about 1,600 workers were dismissed. Similarly, the work towards a functioning employment injury insurance scheme has stalled.
And while the Bangladesh Accord has made important progress in improving factory safety, the government of Bangladesh now suggests it will not allow its successor, the 2018 Transition Accord, to fulfill its role to ensure factory monitoring continues according to rigorous standards until such time that national institutions are up to this task. Indeed, a restraining order was issued by the High Court in Bangladesh on the 2018 Transition Accord. That would mean that after November 30th the Accord could no longer operate. Such premature departure would violate the previous agreement: the ability of the Bangladeshi government to take over the work is to be assessed by a committee of all major stakeholders.
All stakeholders agree that the Bangladeshi government does not yet have that capacity. A regulatory gap will endanger the safety of workers, with every chance of reverting back to pre-Rana Plaza conditions. This directly affects European consumers and businesses. If the Accord cannot monitor factory safety, brands would be left with only one responsible option to not knowingly source from unsafe factories: to suspend orders until the Accord can resume. We stress that this is a scenario we all want to avoid, but also be clear we will be forced to take this position.
The need for a strong message: a trade investigation
These developments are deeply worrying. Bangladesh is the world’s second garment exporter, with four million workers, mainly women, toiling in its industry. The country enjoys trade benefits under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences’ (GSP) most favourable “Everything But Arms” regime , allowing duty- and quota-free access to the EU market on condition of ensuring labour standards. Five years after Rana Plaza, Bangladesh is far removed from doing that.
Trade unionists and labour activists have repeatedly called upon the European Commission to take these violations seriously, and start an investigation into whether Bangladesh still meets preferential treatment requirements. The Commission has failed to adequately respond, despite setting the government of Bangladesh a (long passed) deadline. Therefore, the International Trade Union Confederation, Clean Clothes Campaign and HEC-NYU EU Public Interest Clinic have filed a formal complaint with the European Ombudsman, stating the Commission is failing its human rights obligations.
The next weeks are crucial to see whether the Government of Bangladesh will continue to expel the Accord. The EU should respond and make a stand towards the Bangladeshi government to improve labour conditions and to ensure full cooperation with the 2018 Transition Accord until an independent assessment concludes that the Bangladeshi national institutions are fit to take over.