The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights under the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reviewed the report of Bangladesh on the implementation of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in Geneva recently. As a signatory to the convention, a multi-ministerial Bangladesh delegation attended the review meeting in March. The committee finally adopted and released its concluding observations on March 29, which deserve proper scrutiny and adequate follow-up actions by the government of Bangladesh.
The committee acknowledged the progress made by Bangladesh between 2006 and 2016, particularly in poverty reduction, where the rate has come down from 38.4 per cent to 24.3 per cent. It appreciated the increase in per capita income and life expectancy, advances in ensuring gender equality, improving women's representation in political decision-making, and achieving gender parity and near 100 per cent enrolment in primary education.
However, the concerns and recommendations of the CESCR Committee have been wide and varied covering many sectors of society, economy, culture and polity of Bangladesh. It called for converting the economic, social and cultural rights as enshrined in the fundamental principles of Bangladesh Constitution into fundamental rights through necessary legislation. It recommended strengthening the independence of National Human Rights Commission through adequate funding and manpower and amending the law to expand the commission's mandate. The committee expressed concern over the shrinking space of human rights defenders and urged removal of restrictive provisions in the ICT Act, draft Digital Security Act, 2018, as well as the repeal of Special Powers Act, 1974. It called for meaningful participation of affected communities and civil society in formulation and implementation of action plans and programmes related to climate change and disaster response.
The committee also expressed concern at the growing income disparities, low Tax-GDP ratio, adverse effects of VAT on poor households and inadequate funding for social services including social security, housing, health and education. It recommended optimisation of tax system to increase domestic resources and enhance its effect on income redistribution through tackling tax evasion, expanding tax base, improving tax collection and keeping basic foodstuffs and social services outside the purview of VAT.
Further, it expressed concern at the pervasive corruption in Bangladesh and its "devastating impact on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, particularly by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups". There were "reports of widespread clientelism, which manipulates the allocation of public funding and the provision of public services, and bribery in the allocation of land and basic services". The committee called for improving governance and ensuring transparency in the conduct of public affairs, ensuring strict enforcement of anti-corruption legislation and prosecution without exception of high-level officials and politicians. It recommended enhancing the independence and efficacy of the Anti-Corruption Commission and raising awareness of officials about the economic and social costs of corruption, unacceptability of bribery, and available anti-corruption reporting mechanisms. Notably, Bangladesh was elected Vice-President of the Conference of the State Parties to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) last November.
Concerning labour market, the CESCR Committee recommended regularising the informal economy and providing social and labour protection to informal workers. It also urged enhancement of job quotas for the disabled and ethnic minorities and elimination of discrimination against lower caste 'Dalits' in employment. It called for establishment of a "national minimum wage that applies universally to all workers", as well as reduction in gender pay gap and ensuring equal pay for work of equal value through incorporating this in the labour legislation. The committee also called for eradicating abuses and exploitations in the workplace as well as improving working conditions, revise Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 to cover the informal economy, align specific legislation applicable for EPZs with the Act, set up independent and effective labour complaint mechanism, and strengthen the labour inspection system. It recommended redoubling of efforts to reduce and prevent occupational hazards and prescribed full implementation of the National Occupational Health and Safety Policy 2013, intensification of labour inspections in accident-prone industries, adoption of a national employment injury insurance scheme and adequate compensation for victims of occupational accidents.
With regard to migrant workers, the CESCR Committee urged Bangladesh to "negotiate with other states to ensure that the same level of labour and social protections, as are applicable to national workers, are provided to Bangladeshi migrant workers in the countries of destination, including through bilateral agreements". It called for strengthening the regulation of recruitment agencies, enhancing consular and legal services for migrant workers, and ratifying the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011.
While dwelling on trade union rights, the committee called for thorough investigation into all reported cases of discrimination, harassment, intimidation and dismissals against trade union activists by bringing perpetrators to justice and providing victims with remedies; effectively guarantee trade union rights, as well as review the labour laws and regulations for rationalising procedures and requirements for trade union registration.
Noting the existence of over 140 social safety net programmes and their contribution to poverty alleviation, the committee expressed concern over the low and decreasing proportion of public funding for these programmes.
Turning attention to economic exploitation of children, the committee recommended strengthening the national legislation banning child labour and ensuring its enforcement.
Concerning gender equality, the committee urged expansion of the application of gender equality as provided in the constitution and adoption of a unified family law that ensures equal rights of men and women in relation to marriage, divorce, maintenance, and property inheritance. It called upon the government to intensify efforts for tackling all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.
Turning attention to right to food and nutrition, the committee recommended redoubling efforts for preventing food crises through the effective forecasting of food shortages and ensuring food availability and distribution in vulnerable areas. It also called for full implementation of the Food Safety Act, 2013, and the Food Safety (Confiscation of Food Items and Administrative Action) Rules, 2014. While focusing on housing, the committee called for the provision of social housing for the disadvantaged and marginalised people and groups.
Turning its attention to right to health, education and culture, the CESCR Committee urged intensification of efforts for improving the availability, affordability and quality of healthcare services for all citizens.
The committee further recommended that Bangladesh should ratify the International Convention for the protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and remain accountable to its obligations under the Covenant in order to ensure the rights enshrined in it during the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former editor of Bangladesh Quarterly; Email: email@example.com
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