Jude Kirton-Darling: Sri Lanka must adhere to GSP+ standards
The EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences+ programme comes with appropriate conditions – these must be respected, writes Jude Kirton-Darling.
Jude Kirton-Darling | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual
In May 2017, the EU reaffirmed Sri Lanka as a beneficiary of the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences+ programme – GSP+ - despite the fact that women’s labour rights in the Sri Lankan textile industry are virtually non-existent.
With the textile industry one of the country’s most important export sectors, and considering the protection of human rights is one of the EU’s overarching objectives, this action seems counterintuitive.
The return of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status is a tacit approval of Sri Lanka’s poor labour standards and systematic human rights abuses. Nearly 85 percent of the female population are garment workers, making up 71 percent of the textile industry. However, they do not receive a living wage.
According to the World Bank, they receive on average €0.55 per hour. In 2009, it was held that the minimum wage of garment workers was €50.31, whilst the living wage was €259.46.
The issue does not end there. According to a 2013 ILO report, women in the garment industry work six days a week, with mandatory overtime and minimal breaks.
They are fined for lateness, as well as for talking or having restroom breaks. Too often, workers need to sacrifice their lunch and bathroom breaks to meet production quotas.
Failure to meet the quotas leads to punishments, including working without pay, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and humiliation. Bathroom breaks are strictly controlled, with medical facilities minimal or non-existent.
“The return of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status is a tacit approval of Sri Lanka’s poor labour standards and systematic human rights abuses”
Garment factories tend to be hostile towards trade unions, with little respect for labour law, or health and safety principles. In fact, these conditions have led many women in Sri Lanka to suffer from malnutrition.
The European Commission held that the GSP+ scheme “is conditional on Sri Lanka advancing human and labour rights and working towards sustainable development.”
This means that it must ratify and effectively implement 27 international conventions on human rights, labour conditions, environmental protection and good governance.
This also includes a commitment to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Although Sri Lanka has ratified some core labour conventions, such as the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (C111), Freedom of Association Convention (C087) and Equal Remuneration Convention (C100), they are not effectively implemented.
The EU is Sri Lanka’s biggest export market, accounting for nearly one third of Sri Lanka’s global exports.
Its exports to the EU are dominated by textiles, accounting for 82 percent of Sri Lanka’s total exports to the EU in 2016.
The EU must uphold its promise that the re-inclusion of Sri Lanka into the GSP+ programme is dependent on the effective implementation of international human rights and core labour conventions.
The EU must guarantee that, if Sri Lanka is to retain its benefits, all working women receive a living wage, access to trade unions, normal working hours with their human rights and dignity respected.
The European Parliament has adopted a resolution on trade and gender equality, which called on the Commission to step up its actions in this respect.
The EU must conduct due diligence to ensure that female garment workers also benefit from the GSP+ status.
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