As standing S&D group rapporteur on southeast Asia, I was in Bangladesh to check the progress on several initiatives on factory safety and working conditions that were set up following the terrible tragedy of 2013, when the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed, killing and maiming thousands.
These programmes, the sustainability compact and the Bangladesh fire and safety accord, both aim to increase worker safety by inspecting facilities and working with the Bangladeshi government to implement and enforce proper rules. A lot has been achieved since then. Many factories have indeed been inspected and more than a few have effectively been shut down.
However, progress remains limited and has in some ways even deteriorated in recent years. The pledge to recruit at least 600 new labour inspectors has not been met by the Bangladeshi government and rules are often never or loosely enforced.
My biggest concern, however, is regards the treatment of unions and their members. For a short time following the Rana Plaza tragedy, it became easier for new unions to form and recruit. Since then, a crackdown has taken place. Rules to form a union have tightened considerably and members are fired, intimidated or even assaulted by factory goons.
The situation has become so bad that the International Labour Organisation issued a serious warning to the government of Bangladesh this year.
The International Trade Union Federation took a step further still. They recently called for the serious threat of withdrawal of market access to the European Union if the situation does not improve. Now Bangladesh is classified as a 'least developed country'.
This means it has duty-free and quota free access to the European market under what is called the 'everything but arms' agreement. Revoking this would be a 'nuclear option'. I say 'nuclear' because losing this access would mean a devastating blow to the economy of Bangladesh and ultimately those individuals working in the factories.
The readymade garment (RMG) industry accounts for about 90 per cent of exports and the major source of foreign currency. It employs over four million young women, often with uneducated rural backgrounds, and pays better (if still rather inadequate) wages than most of the other available sectors.
For many a Bangladeshi, the answer to the question "What is worse than working in a RMG factory?" would be, "Not working in a RMG factory."
Revoking market access would not solve the problems and would aggravate the situation for the country and its citizens. However, I certainly share the ITUC's concerns. Particularly in the so-called export processing zones, where we made it clear employers must not play fast and loose with what are already very basic workers' rights.
If we somehow succeed in coupling this to increasing productivity, investment and added value, we would be really helping Bangladesh to be lifted into the march of global progress.
Therefore, the European Union must continue to pull its weight and put pressure on the government of Bangladesh to take the right steps. We must first aim to renew the accord; which is set to expire in 2018.
The possibility of Bangladesh becoming part of the so-called generalised system of preferences plus (GSP+), in 2021 will give the EU further leverage.
I sincerely hope that we will grasp these opportunities, continue to be a critical but constructive partner and remain a force for bettering the plight of a nation and people that is brimming with unlocked potential.