23rd Oct 2020

EU should help Bangladesh workers to unionise

  • The EU is by far Bangladesh's biggest export market (Photo: USDAgov)

Imposing sanctions on Bangladesh for unsafe working conditions while concluding a trade agreement with its neighbour India without a strong social component would be a mistake for the EU.

After more than 1,000 people died following a collapse and a fire in textile factories in Bangladesh, the EU announced that it is considering "appropriate action."

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Read: the EU is considering imposing sanctions on Bangladesh by limiting duty free access for Bangladeshi (textile) products to its market.

What the EU is mostly concerned about are "labour conditions, including health and safety provisions," as expressed in its statement following the collapse.

Is the closing of the EU market for any clothes "made in Bangladesh" the most suitable answer?

Politically this would be a powerful signal.

However, such an approach is problematic in many respects.

Firstly the effect of sanctions is questionable. Imposing punitive measures takes a very long time. It requires a thorough investigation of labour conditions and unanimity among member states.

It could also have a devastating effect on the Bangladeshi economy, which is dependent on its garment industry for 80 percent of its exports.

In 2011, the EU was Bangladesh's major export partner with 26.1 percent of its goods going to the European market.

The US was second in line, with (only) 8.9 percent of products going there.

If the factories in Bangladesh close down, they could easily be moved to Burma up in the east (replicating the same problems).

Rewarding its efforts to democratise, the EU is reinstating Burma's preferential trade relations.

In the past their textile export was large. In the case of sanctions, relocation is looming.

So sanctions are not feasible in the short term and they could just export the problems to other countries.

But apart from this, the debate is too narrowly focused on one particular aspect of labour conditions in one sector in one country.

The problem is much larger than 'just' unsafe working conditions.

It lies with not respecting the right for workers to organise themselves into groups and to conduct collective bargaining.

The brutal and unresolved murder of a trade unionist in Bangladesh only a few weeks ago is an illustration of the disrespect for these fundamental rights.

Had the workers in Rana Plaza enjoyed the right to unionise, they probably would have refused to go back to work in the dilapidated building.

This lack of respect for fundamental labour rights is what the EU should focus on.

Instead it is highlighting an indirect effect of the denial of this right.

Imposing sanctions on Bangladesh now would be shortsighted and a denial of the fundamental problem underlying it.

If the EU really would like to contribute to better respect for labour standards, it should take a more rounded approach. Concentrating on the right to organize and collective bargaining would be a good start.

This issue should be also considered in the light of the EU's trade policy in general.

Can it in all fairness impose sanctions on Bangladesh and at the same time conclude a trade agreement with its neighbour India?

The latter is also notorious for not respecting labour standards.

So what is to be done?

A firmer link should be established between the trade chapters of an EU agreement and the essential conditions underpinning any agreement or co-operation at all.

Currently, labour standards are part of the sustainable development part of a trade agreement.

Their inclusion in here presupposes that social development will automatically be a positive side effect of economic development.

On the contrary, labour standards should be a minimum on which to engage with each other.

The EU should make the respect for these standards a precondition for any additional access to the EU market.

Enhanced trade relations with 500 million consumers would be the reward.

Of course, this link should be established gradually, with technical assistance for countries struggling to comply with standards.

This is to prevent workers themselves being punished, instead of state authorities and factory owners.

What is the message for the EU?

It should only react strongly to the Bangladesh issue if it is sure labour standards will be a prominent part of any trade agreement with India or its fellow so called industrialised partners.

And if it is really serious about the unsafe working environment of Bangladeshi labourers, then it should help them to establish a genuine trade union.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the centre for EU studies in Ghent university, Belgium


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