In a statement on Thursday, John Clancy, spokesperson of EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, said “substantial progress” on labour issues was “important” for Bangladesh's continued preferential access to the EU market.
The Rana Plaza building collapse killed over 1,100 people, mostly garment workers, revealing what the statement said were “serious shortcomings” in the occupational safety and labour rights of Bangladeshi workers in the export-oriented clothing sector.
“It had to be a turning point for safety and labour issues in Bangladesh,” it said.
The EU, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Bangladesh authorities responded to the tragedy by launching what is known as the Sustainability Compact, a betterment initiative which the US later joined.
The Sustainability Compact outlines concrete commitments.
According to the statement, actions it recommends lead to improved occupational safety and health, responsible business conduct, and greater respect of labour rights with a focus on freedom of association and collective bargaining.
“We’ve seen significant progress in these areas over past months but more must be done,” it said.
The spokesperson said the EU was ready to assist Bangladesh with its reforms and would monitor the implementation of the Sustainability Compact.
“We will have a fuller assessment of the Sustainability Compact’s achievements on its first anniversary in July this year,” it said.
The European Union ambassador in Dhaka, William Hanna, said at an ILO function on Thursday that Rana Plaza was an event in history that people around the world would “ever forget it”.
“Rana Plaza had to be a turning point in how both safety and labour issues are dealt with in Bangladesh,” he said.
He noted significant progress and said despite these achievements, more still remains to be done.
“In particular, Bangladesh's ability to ensure safety and health at work, and freedom of association must continue to improve,” he said.
“Bangladeshi authorities need to make sure that new legislation is effectively implemented in practice, and that Bangladeshi industry keeps to its commitments in this respect”.
He said it should also become easier to establish a trade union, and workers must be able to organise and exercise their right to collective bargaining, without fear of harassment, intimidation or harm.
“In this regard we request the Bangladeshi authorities to adopt the implementing rules for the Labour Act at the earliest opportunity”.
He said Bangladesh also needed to address the challenges posed by unregistered factories, subcontracting, and proper implementation of the minimum wage across the industry.
“If Bangladesh's response leads to lasting reform, this will turn Bangladesh into a model country in the region – and this indeed would be a fitting tribute to those lives lost in Rana Plaza,” he said.