The EU will decide in the following month whether Sri Lanka is duly entitled, or not, to be granted the Generalized System of Preferences Plus status (GSP+). This status is a component of the EU's policy for developing countries which offers trade incentives to those that implement core international conventions on human and labour rights, sustainable development and good governance.

Evaluating the country's respect for labour rights is the main focus of the delegation from April 10 to 12, and the main concern for some political groups in the upcoming decision.

Rapporteur, Lola Sánchez Caldentey, comments on their findings in Sri Lanka: “The European Union should not grant a special trade status to Sri Lanka if the money coming from the advantages of this status would remain only in the pockets of a few businessmen. We are willing to give preferences to Sri Lanka, but only if we are sure that the benefit will go to the workers”.

“If the European Union consumers knew the extremely abusive working conditions of the women who produce the cloth they buy from Sri Lanka, they would be ashamed.”

The MEPs were invited to Sri Lanka invited by local trade unions and the Clean Clothes Campaign with the aim of evaluating the country's progress on human rights over recent years.

During the delegation, they encountered workers who have been victims of labour rights violations; including harassment of trade unionists, illegal dismissal of trade union leaders, sexual harassment and labour rights violations within the country's free trade zones.

Dutch MEP, Anne-Marie Mineur, explains: “In 2015, we received with satisfaction the commitment of the Sri Lankan government to put in place legislation to address human rights violations, however, the implementation of that legislation remains very questionable”, says Anne-Marie Mineur.

The MEPs have also expressed concern over the extensive use of temporary workers agencies for co-working arrangements, which have undermined freedom of association and collecting bargaining rights, and the fact that the judiciary has increasingly been interfering in labour disputes and collective bargaining to the detriment of trade unions.

“It is the government´s obligation to effectively guarantee the fundamental rights of workers and their trade unions. Collective bargaining and to right to strike should be an integral part of this. The government must ensure that these workers can organise themselves through trade unions, because otherwise exploitation will continue,” Mineur continues.

Following their investigation, the MEPs have addressed their serious concerns over the labour rights issues to the Minister of Labour Mr.W.D. John Seneviratne (among other officials with whom they met), who expressed his commitment to ensure that at least 50 per cent of the benefits of the GSP+ status will go to the workers.

After more than ten meetings, the MEPs concluded: “We obviously welcome this engagement, but we still don’t know how the government will deliver on this promise. From our perspective, the first step to make sure that the benefits get to the workers is to make sure that they have the effective right to organise and bargain collectively. Signing a convention is just the beginning, the real challenge is to implement it; to ensure that the workers not only have the theoretical right to organise, but also that, in reality, there is no harassment towards trade unions by the employers.”

The MEPs have also endorsed the Sri Lankan trade unions' road map to assert labour rights which aims to help in ensuring that the workers will effectively benefit from GSP+ status.

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