No or yes, trade union at EPZs to cut both ways

The Daily Star, Vol.4 N.125, Monday 29 September 2003

Govt still torn between risking US withdrawal of GSP and investor pullout; inter-ministerial committee sits again today Rafiq Hasan

Dhaka is still undecided about allowing trade union (TU) activities at special economic zones despite a US threat to cancel the generalised system of preference (GSP) facilities in case the ban continues.

An inter-ministerial committee headed by State Minister for Labour and Manpower Amanullah Aman is currently working out details of a comprehensive strategy regarding introduction of trade union activities in the country's six export processing zones (EPZs).

A final decision in this regard will be taken following recommendations of the inter-ministerial committee, according to sources.

Dhaka however has decided to send a delegation to the US Trade Representatives (USTR) soon to explain its latest position on the matter following an invitation by the USTR, said a high official of the ministry.

“Although we are yet to map out our strategy, all issues including the country's interests vis-à-vis export and investment will be considered in dealing with the TU issue,” said a member of the inter-ministerial committee.

Formed in the first week of April, the committee was supposed to submit its recommendations within three months. Its tenure was extended for three more months during which it held a number of meetings but still fell short of making recommendations, sources said. The committee is again scheduled to meet today.

“We are exploring all ways to protect workers' rights as well as safeguard the interest of investors before taking any final decision,” Aman told The Daily Star Saturday.

He further said the workers and employees at factories in the EPZs are being given special training about norms in the special zones and ways to protect their rights.

“EPZs are special economic zones and TU activities there should also be in that context and therefore different from other cases,” the minister said adding that the government was always in favour of trade unionism.

On several occasions, the newly appointed US Ambassador in Bangladesh Harry K Thomas expressed disappointment over non-compliance of international labour standards in the EPZs.

He observed Bangladesh may lose GSP facilities and chance of getting duty-free access of its products to the US markets if it fails to raise the standard of workers—meaning to allow trade union—by January 2004.

Under heavy pressure from Washington, the previous Awami League government had agreed in principle and assured the US of allowing trade unions at the EPZs from 2004.

The US is the largest buyer of Bangladeshi products, accounting for 44 per cent of its total export.

On the other hand, foreign financiers in the EPZs on several occasions have threatened to withdraw their investments if TUs are allowed.

They claimed they invested in the EPZs following assurance that no trade union will be allowed in line with the Bepza Act.