EU must hold trade partners 'accountable' for workers' rights

As Pakistan's textile products begin to 'freely' enter the EU market, policymakers have a responsibility to 'emphasise' social responsibility, writes Barbara Matera.

By Barbara Matera MEP

15 Apr 2014

On 24 April 2014, one year will have passed since the tragedy that followed the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh which left 1133 people dead, over 2500 injured and at least 800 children orphaned.

In Pakistan, the situation regarding safety and working conditions for the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children working in the country's textile industry has long been giving signals that a danger of another Rana Plaza exists, this time in Pakistan.

Pakistan has one of the largest textile industries in the world, shipping €10bn worth of textiles, mostly to the US and Europe. Textiles account for 63 per cent of Pakistan's exports, and textile mills employ 20 per cent of the nation's workforce. An estimated 30 per cent of the textiles workforce is female.

Within the sector, women workers are concentrated in low-paid, labour-intensive, downstream production (readymade garments, linen, towels), while men dominate capital-intensive ginning, spinning and weaving processes. Employment of women in stitching is found to be between 41 to 75 per cent of the total workforce in respective units. About half of the women working in the textile sector are between the ages of 14-24, and about 22 per cent are illiterate.

"In search of cheaper production [employers] are willing to endanger the lives of those working for them under inhumane conditions"

From studies conducted in Pakistan's factories, women are forced to work overtime with inadequate wages. Furthermore, in over 90 per cent of cases women are not being given written contracts, in 80 per cent of the cases they are not provided with health and safety equipment and 70 per cent suffer from sexual harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, in most cases it is American and European companies that have assigned their production lines to facilities in Pakistan.

These textile factory jobs tend to be the best source of employment for Pakistani women and some companies take advantage of that fact. These facilities do not respect the safety and the wellbeing of their workers. In search of cheaper production they are willing to endanger the lives of those working for them under inhumane conditions.

It is important to note that Europe bears responsibility in this case. As of January 2014, Pakistan has been granted generalised scheme of preferences status allowing for Pakistani products to freely enter the European markets. As local European producers have stressed, however, this will inevitably take a great toll on domestic production in Europe since it cannot compete with the cheaper and unregulated production coming from Pakistan.

The European Union needs to realise that reinforcement of domestic production should be placed first in order to provide jobs to our citizens and help lead us out of the financial crisis, the pangs of which are still being felt.

We need to promote European production that emphasises social responsibility, with respect to the environment and the rights of the workers. We need to improve the quality of our products while ensuring unfair competition does not place a burden on our economies. To do so we must hold our foreign partners accountable.

Read the most recent articles written by Barbara Matera MEP - EU must speak out against 'honour killings'