Saturday, August 10, 2013

US and EU differ on trade sanctions for violation of labor rights in Bangladesh

As one of the least developed countries in the world, Bangladesh has been a beneficiary of special tariff benefits under GSP programs in both the EU and US over the last several decades.  In the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse in which 1,129 people were killed, US and EU trade authorities differed in their approach in determining whether Bangladesh should continue as a beneficiary of special trade preferences.  While the US suspended trade benefits under GSP, the EU allowed benefits to continue.  Despite this difference in policy, both the US and EU have continued active engagement with government authorities and social partners in Bangladesh to improve labor and employment law enforcement and workplace and building standards.  Both the US and EU will cooperate with the ILO and one another to improve labor standards and enforcement in Bangladesh in the coming years. European authorities have criticized the decision of US authorities to engage in trade sanctions against Bangladesh, but it appears as though action taken by USTR has led to a flurry of legislative and administrative action in Bangladesh to implement meaningful labor protections .  Critically, on August 9, 2013, the Solidarity Center reported that the Government of Bangladesh re-registered the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a worker education and advocacy group which had been deregistered in 2010.

My recent piece in the ABA International Employment Lawyer (August 2013) outlines the procedural history leading up to USTR's suspension of trade benefits for Bangladesh in June of this year.  Although the suspension occurred 3 months after the Rana Plaza disaster, it was in fact the culmination of a 6 year process commenced with a petition filed by the AFL-CIO in 2007.  In many ways, this process has been ongoing for the last 23 years, as the first petition to suspend Bangladesh from the US GSP program for labor violations was filed in 1990.

What stands out in reviewing the pleadings in the GSP review process is how prominent a role Export Processing Zones (EPZs) play in the continuance of serious labor violations in Bangladesh and elsewhere.  EPZs allow for a separate labor rights regime which affords lesser protections than most countries' general labor rights regimes.  While both women and men work in EPZs, there is a predominance of women in certain sectors in EPZs which results in the creation, in essence, of a separate and unequal labor rights regime with disparate impact on women workers.

It is also apparent that the ongoing trade review process over the last 23 years has resulted in some improvements to the contents and application of labor laws in Bangladesh, with some steps forward and many steps backward.

Legislative authorities in Bangladesh are in the process of amending the country's labor laws, but the ILO has found amendments to fall short of full compliance with international labor standards and has called for further steps to improve labor laws and compliance.   In particular, Human Rights Watch focused its analysis on gender-related provisions of the new law, noting that while the version as of July 15, 2013 contained new provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex and disability, it did not contain provisions prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace as required by a 2009 decision of the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh outlawing sexual harassment of women, girls and children in the workplace and educational facilities.