People in Sri Lanka deserve more than paper progress

SP Euro-MP Anne-Marie Mineur recently visited Sri Lanka. The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean to the south of India. With a population of 22 million, it relies heavily on its textile and clothing industries, which account for 70% of the country’s exports, with the US as its principle customer and the EU in second place. A war which lasted for years between the Tamil Tigers and the Singhalese-dominated government ended with the Tamil Tigers’ surrender in 2009, but this failed to bring about real peace or equal treatment for Tamil citizens. It was human rights abuses following the surrender which led to suspension by the EU of its special trade relationship with Sri Lanka, known as GSP+. The renewal of GSP+ is being questioned by Sri Lankan textile workers and others who challenge the EU’s claims that workers’ rights have improved.

 

The interests of working people aren’t exactly the priority in the European Union. The Greeks know all too well that the euro and the interests of northern European banks come before them; dockers and lorry drivers have been aware for years that the internal market is seen by Brussels as more important than the question of whether they are paid a decent wage. Nevertheless, the EU can sometimes play a positive role in promoting workers’ rights. An example is in cases where a country is accredited with special trading rights. In this case Sri Lanka is anxious to regain its GSP+ status, enabling it to conduct trade with the EU under what is known as the General System of Preferences. Briefly this means that provided Sri Lanka imposes no import levies, the country will enjoy easier access to Europe’s market of 500 million consumers. This is of course in the interests of firms based there. However, because the granting of GSP+ is linked to all sorts of human rights, labour rights and environmental conditions, it can also play a major role in improving the situation of workers in the country.

“It can indeed play a major role,” Anne-Marie Mineur stresses on her return from Sri Lanka, where she went with people from trade union groups, from the Clean Clothes Campaign (dedicated to improving conditions in the global textile and garment trades), and with fellow MEP Lola Sanchez of Spain’s Podemos, to see how things sit with workers’ rights there. “On paper big steps have been taken to the benefit of the workers,” she says. “The right to unite in a trade union, protection against intimidation, exploitation and human rights abuses, a country must fulfil relatively strict demands if it wants to win GSP+ status. But paper can be very patient,” she quips, “so we wanted to see for ourselves  how things were in practice.”

 

How things are in reality

 

The European Commission and the European Parliament, when considering granting GSP+ status, look in the first instance at whether the country in question, in this case Sri Lanka, has ratified all of the treaties in which the rights of workers and human rights in general are enumerated. During the visit Mineur spoke not only with ministers and business people, but also with trade unionists and with the workers  themselves.  “That’s how you can track down how things are in reality,” she says. “Okay, the country has ratified the required  treaties, but at the same time workers have noticed little improvement. I spoke with two 18-year-old women. They get up at four in the morning, have to travel two hours by bus to stand for nine hours making clothing – the shirts we can buy here in the Netherlands. Then another two hours back in the bus. They have to meet production standards which are determined on the basis of the highest total ever achieved, rounded up. If you don’t meet the standard – and logically enough hardly anyone ever does – your salary is cut. The salary itself isn’t enough to maintain a family. They work twenty-six days per month. Miss a single day, because of sickness or for whatever reason, you lose the attendance bonus for that month, which takes you below the minimum wage.”

 

Trade union members under heavy pressure

 

These young women’s situation is, as it turns out, unfortunately no exception. Mineur can’t risk naming names and certainly cannot show photos of the workers. Getting the sack, and as a result having absolutely no money coming in, is always even worse than earning just enough to ward off starvation. “We spoke with trade union members who have been put under considerable pressure to put an end to their activities,” she explains. “People are promised money if they give up their membership, a difficult choice if you’re constantly on the edge of absolute poverty. Employers set up their own unions, which of course then agree to everything. Sacked if it turns out you’re a union member, intimidation, that’s the norm in Sri Lanka.” And all of this while the country has just signed up to the ILO treaties. Putting these agreements into practice is, Mineur says, made more difficult by the country’s Free Trade Zones, to which companies are attracted by means of low taxes, fewer regulations and thus fewer controls and inspections. “No inspector can go their unannounced,” says Mineur. “So monitoring of working conditions is impossible.”

 

Half to the workers

 

Armed with information from people on the shopfloor, Mineur spoke with Sri Lankan Minister of Labour John Seneviratne. “During the meeting we made it clear that we had major concerns over human rights in general and workers’ rights.. At first he didn’t seem to want to commit himself, but after a short time he came out with a promise that half of the gains which GSP+ would bring (from duty-free imports to the EU) would go to the workers. That’s a hard figure to work out, just what the government will have to pay out. ILO director for Sri Lanka Simrin Singh says that she sees possibilities in the idea.”

 

Tough regulation remains necessary

 

So Mineur returned from Sri Lanka with mixed news. Her conclusion was first of all that as yet little about human rights or workers’ rights had been put to rights, despite all the agreements which Sri Lanka had just signed. Mineur and her Spanish colleague responded by putting a proposal to the European Parliament to delay recognition of GSP+ status. “The only progress has been on paper,” she argues. “If the status is confirmed, any chance of tough regulation has gone and I’m afraid that on paper is where it would stay.” On the other hand the promise from the Labour Minister that half of the gains would go to the workers is concrete and in the view of local trade union leaders could be made easy to monitor. Mineur passed the minister’s proposal  to European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, along with urgent advice to make this happen. People in Sri Lanka could certainly use some real progress.

 

“That’s where we are now, there’s space”

 

Mineur expects further steps to be taken. “The GSP+ status is giving rise to a great many things in Sri Lanka,” she says. “During the visit journalists were extremely interested. Then after our return when it turned out that we were going to bring forward proposals to delay granting the status, one of their ministers flew to Brussels to try to change my mind. He didn’t succeed, by the way.”

 

Unfortunately the European Parliament voted to reject the proposal from Mineur and Sanchez. Even the social democrats, despite Dutch ex-trade union leader Agnes Jongerius having recently expressed serious doubts about the situation in Sri Lanka, voted against it, including Jongerius herself.

 

So - same old Brussels? “Perhaps,” sighs Mineur, “but I haven’t quite given up. Shortly I have a meeting with Malmström. I intend to get her to face the facts and ask her to follow up on the labour minister’s concrete promises. We’re always saying that this kind of treaty ensures better working conditions in these countries. That’s possible, as I’ve already said. But for that you really have to look at what’s happening in the workplace and monitor true, not paper progress, and make it a condition. That’s where we are now, there’s space. So let’s get to work!”

 

This article first appeared in the original Dutch in the SP monthly De Tribune in May, 2017.