Financial Times

GSP+: Unions enter the picture

The other day, a trade unionist commented, “Sri Lanka has no (diplomatic) friends in the West to canvass the GSP+ benefits before the European Parliament.” Absolutely true. In the past 12 to 18 months, under its policy of non-intereference in the war and humanitarian relief, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has isolated itself from the West and relied on a combination of left-leaning and West-detested leaders like Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libya’s eternal chieftain Muammar al Gaddafi to help its cause.

Understandably a sovereign nation cannot brook any nonsense from the world when trying to wipe out terrorism. Calls from the international community to halt the war because civilians were harmed were, to some extent, one-sided and little effort made to persuade the LTTE to stop using human shields as their defence.

The few months before the war ended in May were trying times for Sri Lanka when such calls from Western leaders were brushed aside, drawing condemnation which continues to be the case even after the war is over, owing to the large number of displaced persons in camps who live in unsuitable conditions.

The onset of monsoon rains in coming weeks will worsen their plight. We have in the past urged the authorities to handle these issues with tactful diplomacy in its ‘anti-West’ stance vis-à-vis the war because of the massive trade and economic links with these countries. Apart from the issues in Europe, Sri Lanka will face another inquiry with trade concessions with the US also coming up for review next year.

These regions are big buyers of our garments and we shouldn’t annoy them. The ‘demands’ by the EU are in line with their laws and societal obligations where doing business with countries that have a human rights issue or where workers are treated unfairly, becomes a problem. On the other hand, stopping these concessions by Europe, which though it has a right to do, hurts the very people it is trying to protect -- workers and their families and affects their right to earn a living.

The government must also caution its ministers over the knee-jerk responses to the damning preliminary report on Sri Lanka by a team of EC experts on the GSP+ trade concessions. Like it or not, the industry needs these concessions and trying to sweep issues under the carpet in the name of statements like ‘we don’t have human rights issues … we won’t allow an EU team, etc’ isn’t going to help. It’s the workers and their families -- not the politicians or the employers – who would suffer.

Dayan Jayatilleka, former Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva, made some valid points in an article last week, titled “GSP Plus: Was there another way?” Jayatilleka says, “the cold hard fact is that we need GSP Plus far more than the EU needs to give it to us. It is not our right or entitlement; it is what it is: a concession. This concession is conditional upon certain things because we sought eligibility upon certain claims and obtained the concession in the first place upon those claims and promises.”
He suggests that there should be some flexibility on the part of both the government and the European Union and calls for building a new relationship with the end of the war.

Garment industry sector trade union leader Anton Marcus and others from the connected trade union movement were due on Friday evening to meet with Ministers G.L. Peiris, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, Milinda Moragoda and Rohitha Bogollagama and discuss how unions could intervene in the dispute and help Sri Lanka get the facility.

The meeting was arranged by Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa who on Monday met the unions, at the request of the President, to discuss a possible union role in the crisis. Powerful international unions, in which local unions are affiliated to, have urged the government to implement the labour conventions which deal with freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The European-based and US-based unions are influential with European and US leaders (one US union is close to President Barack Obama) and local unions suggest that if the government agrees to some of the demands and ensures its implementation through a time-based roadmap, the global unions – in the absence of ‘friends in the West’ – will push Sri Lanka’s case.

Unions say that if Colombo fails to get the benefit, employers of more than 250,000 garment workers could resort to laying off workers, reducing their benefits and resort to longer working hours. The unions and the employers have been on a collision course for years over unionisation in the free trade zones.
The unions are powerful and if they are able to – through their overseas partners – lobby for the concessions to be restored, then the government must effectively use this option which can be in addition to the diplomatic initiative as a joint effort from Sri Lanka.

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