EU Parliament questions Labour laws in Balochistan

In a written question to the European Commission (E-001719-19) at the beginning of April 2019, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), from the Social Democratic Party, Claude Moraes from the UK and Maria Arena from Belgium, highlighted that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No 98) was ratified by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1952. Compliance with the Convention is a prerequisite for Pakistan’s eligibility for the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+).

Pakistan benefits from EU trade subsidy programmes under GSP+ as it gains from substantial duty reductions on its exports to the EU. These benefits should be availed only under strict compliance with 27 international core conventions set out in the GSP+ prerequisites. In 2014, Pakistan confirmed it had ratified all 27 Core Conventions as obligatory for access to GSP+. The ‘plus” represents a country’s commitment to good governance and sustainable development, which happens when the core conventions are effectively implemented. The term effective implementation in this context is the only guarantee the European Union has of Pakistan’s compliance to the GSP+ criteria. Pakistan has never effectively implemented the core conventions. Indeed, the European Commission’s own monitoring documents, issued in January 2018, highlight the “serious concerns” in respect of Pakistan’s on-going and systematic human rights violations, including modern slavery, child labour, widespread torture in prisons, the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, the misapplication of the death penalty applied by military courts against civilians, the targeting of journalists and systemic abuses of women in all levels of social life.

Moraes and Arena reiterated that the European Commission is responsible for monitoring violations of the core conventions. They highlighted that “the ILO notes that Pakistan’s Industrial Relations Act, 2012 (IRA) excludes numerous categories of workers from its scope. However, Articles 5 and 6 of the Convention allow only the exclusion of the armed forces, the police and public servants engaged in the administration of the state. The ILO notes that the Government of Balochistan also excludes tribal areas and public enterprises from the scope of its IRA.” In effect, Moraes and Arena highlight the failing of effective implementation by the Government of Balochistan, against the ILO convention through its imposed exclusions. Thus, the MEPs called on the Commission to investigate the protection of labour rights of people employed in the tribal areas of Balochistan and Pakistan’s export processing zones where further exclusions, including the prohibition of trade unions, were in force.

They also requested clarification on the actions taken by the Commission, as the monitoring body, to ensure that the Government of Pakistan had fulfilled its responsibility to comply with labour rights conventions. In their final question, the politicians requested details of the Commission’s GSP+ ‘scorecard’ for Pakistan and Pakistan’s rating in terms of core labour standards, especially considering the high number of ongoing ILO Normlex cases against Pakistan.

The answer given by Ms Malmström, Commissioner for Trade, on behalf of the European Commission, stated that “as a beneficiary of the EU’s Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (GSP+), Pakistan is subject to rigorous monitoring of its obligations under the 27 applicable international conventions. This process involves written communications, monitoring missions and annual bilateral meetings.” Malmström went on to clarify that “the latest mission took place in October 2018. Labour rights experts from the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) raised issues including child labour, forced labour, freedom of association, collective bargaining rights, occupational safety and health, and labour inspections. The EU further stressed the need for labour laws to be fully applied in Export Processing Zones, in line with International Labour Organisation conventions. These issues were also addressed in the November 2018 EU-Pakistan Subgroup on Governance and Human Rights and the EU-Pakistan Joint Commission, and in follow-up questions sent to Pakistan in March 2019. On these occasions, the EU has pushed for the introduction of new legislation on child labour (including domestic workers), as well as on health and safety at work.”

By her own admission, Commissioner Malmström has confirmed that Pakistan is failing in its obligations for effective implementation of ILO Labour Conventions -but is choosing not to act against Pakistan. Additionally, the Commissioner fails to disclose the scorecards for Pakistan arguing that “To build trust and foster constructive cooperation with beneficiary countries, the Commission does not disclose the specific contents of the ‘Lists of Issues’ (‘scorecards’).”

The European Union has always promised transparency of its work for the European citizens who fund it. Yet, it appears that the Trade Commissioner is above this transparency. The European Parliament, on an equal footing to the European Commission has a right to review the scorecards and monitoring process of the Commission on all subsidies granted by the European Union. It is thus even more peculiar that Malmström states that “countries are not assigned ‘ratings’. The purpose of the List of Issues is to highlight the EU’s most pressing concerns so as to build a basis for the ensuing dialogue. The EU’s main concern is to ensure that beneficiaries continue to make meaningful progress towards their obligations.” Are we now to read that “meaningful progress” is to replace “effective implementation” in the GSP+ criteria?

Commissioner Malmström on behalf of the European Commission assured MEPs Moraes and Arena that the EU will continue to closely monitor the situation in Pakistan and report to both EU co-legislators on the state of play. However, if she has now changed the rules of the game maybe, the European Parliament could make a further request for information on the transparency of the monitoring process.

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