EPZ reforms on cards as govt seeks to revive GSP facilityNazmul Ahsan
A committee the government set up in the past week to consider labour law changes for exports processing zones will need to work hard to strike a balance between the workers, who are seeking the same labour rights enjoyed by non-EPZ workers, and the foreign investors who are concerned about the introduction of trade unions.
Bangladesh has eight EPZs, which have till August received cumulative foreign investment of about $3 billion, according to the statistics available with the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority. In addition, local investment in the special zones is more tan $688 million.
The Prime Minister’s Office set up the committee in response to the United States Trade Representative’s office handing over an ‘action plan’ to be implemented by the government to revive the GSP facility for Bangladesh goods exported to the US market.
The United States on June 28 suspended the GSP facility for Bangladesh goods entering the US market citing, amongst other things, lack of workplace safety and shortcomings in labour standards in the country’s apparel sector.
The suspension was triggered by a fire incident in Tazreen Fashions where 112 workers were burnt alive in November 2012 and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building where at least 1,130 workers died and many more were injured.
In the plan, in which the US administration asked the government to establish labour rights including allowing freedom of association for EPZ workers, three specific conditions that the government needs to comply with are set out.
The first one states that the government must ‘repeal or commit to a timeline for expeditiously bringing the EPZ law into conformity with international standards so that workers within EPZ factories enjoy the same freedom of association and collective bargaining rights as other workers in the country.’ It adds that the government should create a working group ‘and begin the repeal or overhaul of the EPZ law, in coordination with the ILO.’
The second condition in the action plan states that the government must ‘issue regulations that, until the EPZ law has been repealed or overhauled, will ensure the protection of EPZ workers’ freedom of association, including by prohibiting “blacklisting” and other forms of exclusion from the zones for labour activities.’
Thirdly, ‘until the EPZ law is repealed or overhauled, [the government] will ensure transparency in the endorsement of the existing EPZ law and require the same inspection standards and procedures as in the rest of the RMG sector.’
In relation to assessing whether the government has implemented the action plan, the maiden hearing on GSP will be held in December in Washington, a trade official said.
The seven-member high-powered working group, led by the secretary to the Prime Minister’s Office, Molla Waheeduzzaman, has been formed to make recommendations on how to protect the interests of both foreign investors and EPZ workers by amending the existing labour related laws or the EPZ act.
The committee has been asked to get their tasks done by September 20.
Other members on the committee are the labour and employment secretary,
Mikail Shipar, and the expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment secretary, Zafar Ahmed Khan, representatives from the commerce and the law ministry, the Board of Investment, and the export processing zone authority.
The EPZs are now governed by the BEPZA Act 1980 and the EPZ Labour Welfare Association and Industry Related Act (Amendment) 2010.
These special economic zones have been kept out of the purview of existing labour rights, particularly that of the freedom of association set out in the existing Bangladesh Labour Law 2006.
Clause 81 of the EPZ Labour Welfare Association and Industry Related Act (Amendment) 2010 clearly states that there is a bar on enforcing programmes like strikes or lock-out in the EPZ factories.
Whilst the government is under pressure from the US government to make changes in the EPZs, at the same time foreign investors in Dhaka and Chiitagong EPZs have expressed their concern to the BEPZA about the possible introduction of trade unionism and ‘vandalism’ in the name of freedom of association in the special zones.
‘Concerns from major foreign investors in the EPZs are high as they fear that the destructive nature of trade unionism in the country, if introduced in the EPZs, will ruin their industry and investment,’ a senior EPZ official told the New Age on Thursday.
‘The government must work out how to strike a balance between the interests of investors and workers,’ he said.
Mahbub Ahmed, the commerce secretary, declined to clarify what his position was on how such a balance could be created.
‘Things are progressing taking into account the interests of all stakeholders in the EPZs,’ he said.
Nazma Binte Alamgir, the BEPZA general manager, said that they were aware of the action plan and consequences in all respect. ‘Let us see how things get done.’
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