The European Union (EU), a top export destination for Bangladesh, is still not satisfied with the country's labour rights situation although the government has amended labour related laws a few times in the last seven years.
Detecting flaws in the existing laws, the EU now wants tougher labour laws, and concrete and lasting initiatives to ensure labour rights, conforming to the observation of the Universal Periodic Review and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts, according to a report, signed by the Labour Secretary, submitted to the Prime Minister's Office recently.
Labour Secretary KM Abdus Salam told The Business Standard, "We have started reviewing our labour laws for their amendments. Work is underway on how to incorporate the recommendations and observations of the EU and the ILO into the laws and implement them."
"The continuation of Bangladesh's duty-free trade facility in the EU market hinges on the implementation of the EU proposed areas for actions."
The EU has suggested that the government formulate a time-specific action plan and incorporate nine areas for action in it to remain eligible for the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) facility.
The GSP is given under the EU's Everything but Arms (EBA) arrangement.
The EU proposed amending labour-related laws, eliminating child labour and combating violence against workers, harassment and unfair labour practices under the action plan.
The proposals for increasing the success rate of application for trade union registration to 90%, disposing of lawsuits in labour courts quickly, following up workers' complaints efficiently and recruiting labour inspectors have also come from the EU.
Moreover, the EU also suggested ensuring proper work for the Remediation Coordination Cell and transition to the Industrial Safety Unit. Their close cooperation with the RMG Sustainability Council should also be ensured.
Bangladesh has also been asked to ratify ILO Convention 138 on the minimum age for working and Convention 29 on forced labour. Convention 138 states that a child at the age of 12 is allowed to perform light work in non-hazardous situations and a child aged 15 can enter the workforce.
Earlier, Bangladesh prepared an action plan and sent it to the EU in January. In a return letter to Bangladesh in February, it proposed forming a "technical EBA mission" comprising representatives from the EU to finalise the action plan.
An EU delegation was scheduled to arrive in Dhaka on 10-11 March to finalise the action plan, but the visit was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under pressure from the EU and the ILO, the government has also begun amending Labour Rules, the Labour Act and EPZ Labour Act to continue its trade benefits in the EU market.
At an inter-ministerial meeting held on 8 October, the labour ministry discussed the various conditions of the two organisations to take necessary steps in this regard.
On 11 October, the Ministry of Labour and Employment formed a 13-member committee with representatives from employers and workers to make recommendations for amending the Labour Act and the EPZ Labour law.
Even then, there is constant pressure from development and trade partners to improve labour standards, the reported added.
Both employers and workers face the same amount of fines for violating any section of the existing laws. By amending these sections, the fines for employers would be doubled compared to those for workers.
Legal legitimacy will be given to the introduction of collecting bargaining agents at the national level, including various industries and sectors.
The government will formulate an action plan to eliminate all forms of child labour by 2025. The labour ministry has sent a proposal to the Ministry of Public Administration to appoint a new labour inspector.
Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, told The Business Standard, "The government should have implemented such plans before they came from the EU. Europe's markets are the most important for us. There is no alternative to implementing the time-bound action plan for the continuation of the EBA facility in this market."
Bangladesh will have to finalise the decision to amend labour laws by complying with the EU demands through a time-specific action plan before the European Commission finalises the new GSP regulation by November. Otherwise, Bangladesh might lose the existing EBA facility, according to sources.
In June 2019, representatives of workers from Japan, Italy, Pakistan, South Africa, and Brazil complained to the ILO that Bangladesh failed to make its labour laws in line with the ILO Conventions. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) played an active role against Bangladesh in filing that complaint.
When Bangladesh requested ITUC withdraw the complaint, it demanded the formulation and implementation of a separate action plan along with the organisation as a condition for improving the state of labour rights.
The ITUC is pressuring Bangladesh to implement an observation it had placed before the ILO's Committee of Experts on the labour rights situation in Bangladesh.
Kutubuddin Ahmed, an executive member of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, said, "For the continuation of the GSP facility, we have to amend the labour rules and laws and make them labour-friendly. In the past, the government had prioritised the opinions of owners over the workers' in all initiatives of amending the laws. For this, the government is facing criticism in different international forums regarding the labour situation of the country."
To reduce the number of cases in the labour courts, the public administration ministry has approved a proposal to set up three new courts in Narayanganj, Cumilla and Gazipur. The Finance Division has not yet agreed to it. The process is underway to set up a labour court in Faridpur.
As of August, the overall progress of the remediation of factories under the national initiative is about 42%.
Meanwhile, the Sustainability Compact meeting held in Brussels in June 2016, the 3+5+1 group – Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Labour, as well as the EU, USA, Canada, UK, and Germany, plus the ILO – meeting held on 20 February last year, and the fifth meeting of Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (Ticfa) held in Washington in February, reviewed the labour situation in Bangladesh. On the same day, a report on the labour standards of Bangladesh was also tabled in the US Senate.