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Labor Rights Under Scrutiny in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

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Human Rights Watch and the European Union have alleged large-scale exploitation of labor in the garment industries of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.  In both South Asian countries, the problem is magnified by the absence of basic labor rights, including the right of workers to safe working conditions and fair wages. Withdrawal of tariff concessions on exports or other trade agreements could only worsen the situation. The Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan UN Ambassadors have offered a more benign narrative, noting their countries' relative success in implementing the Millennium Development Goals.

By Kumari Karandawala

August 16, 2010

Human Rights Watch has strongly criticised the Bangladeshi government for the July riots by garment workers, while the European Union has warned the Sri Lankan government that it will withdraw its Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Plus tariff concessions on exports to Europe unless Sri Lanka complies with conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, told IPS that, "The core problem is Bangladesh's labour situation in the ready-made garment sector is underpinned by employers' systemic denial of basic labour rights, such as safe and decent working conditions, freedom of association and the right to form a union, and ability to earn a decent wage."

Robertson felt that the Bangladesh government failed to respond adequately after the riots and said that government ministers and officials were "seeking to blame others, seek out scapegoats, and ultimately turn loose the Rapid Action Battalion and police to intimidate, arrest and torture workers and rights activists."

Bangladesh, considered a Least Developed Country (LDC) for the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agenda, and Sri Lanka, a developing nation, appear to be on parallel paths.

They may want to comply with ILO labour requirements, but both nations face constraints in terms of domestic and economic pressures that threaten to undermine development priorities.

Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen, Bangladesh's ambassador to the U.N., told IPS that he believes the subsequent wage increases from 1662 BD taka a month (23 dollars) to 3,000 taka (43 dollars) by the government for garment workers was fair and in fact would not have been possible if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had not intervened on behalf of garment workers.

Momen argued that leaders of trade unions representing garment workers in Bangladesh incited the riots themselves, not the garment workers.

He stated that Bangladesh has come a long way for a poor country once pigeonholed by the U.N. as a "bottomless pit" and made comparisons to the U.S. history of slavery, adding that the MDG goals for developing countries like Bangladesh would be easier to achieve if developed nations would live up to their aid commitments.

"For example the MDG goals were designed to be an agreement between developing and developed countries. Goal 8 is about a global partnership. How can Bangladesh deliver on the MDG goals when she is fighting over population and natural calamities? The agreement for LDCs is that developed countries will give two percent to developing GNI. Scandinavian countries were to give seven percent. Developed countries fail to meet their obligations to the developing countries."

In Sri Lanka, the EU threat was followed by a citation from the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), which petitioned the U.S. government to investigate workers' rights in Sri Lanka.

Unresolved violations of workers' rights without government compliance could trigger U.S. withdrawal of its own GSP Plus tariff concessions on exports from Sri Lanka to the U.S.

While last week's U.S.-led delegation to Sri Lanka concluded discussions cordially, it remains unclear what action the EU will take this August.

Dr. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United Nations, told IPS, "It is unfortunate that the EU Commission that advocates high human rights standards for women's' rights will adopt this measure knowing very well that the Sri Lanka apparel industry provides employment to thousands of women."

He said that the ILO has been very complimentary of Sri Lanka's compliance with labour conventions.

"In fact," Kohona said, "many of the members of the EU themselves have not complied with the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights (ICCPR) within their domestic jurisdiction. It is difficult to understand then the intensity with which the EU has insisted on Sri Lanka's total compliance."

Momen told IPS that Bangladesh has taken corrective measures to reach the MDGs, noting that maternal deaths have been reduced under a government-subsidised programme which provides incentives for young mothers to visit free clinics set up in rural areas.

"We will also have eradicated hunger by 2013 and we will be self-sufficient in food. Our poverty level will be at 15 percent by 2015 and we have a six percent GDP growth rate. That is pretty good for a country that had a poverty level of 45 percent in 2006. Bangladesh is a dynamic country and resilient in spite of overpopulation and climate problems," he told IPS.

Kohona, who echoed Momen's sentiments regarding not receiving promised aid from developed nations, told IPS that the Bretton Woods institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, must be restructured to be more democratic and that their policies must be reshaped to be more oriented to the needs of developing nations.

"Sri Lanka is one of the better performers with regard to achieving her MDG goals," he said, "in fact it is either on the way to achieving them or has surpassed them."

"Sri Lanka's literacy rate exceeds 94 percent and female literacy is 92 percent, which compares well with many of the developed countries," he told IPS.

"Life expectancy is 72 percent for males and 74 percent for females. Ninety-six percent of child births are attended to by skilled practitioners resulting in an infant mortality rate of 13 per 1000. The HIV rate between ages 15-49 is 0.1 percent and malnutrition has reduced to less than five percent," he said.

The AFL-CIO did not return requests for comment by publication time.


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