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US GSP probe resumes in Jan.

 Feizal Samath 
Hearing in a public petition filed by an umbrella of US labour unions challenging the Sri Lankan government’s failure to allow unions within the export processing zones and outside, resumes in Washington next month, officials said.The petition filed by AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) urges the US government to stop GSP benefits to Sri Lanka unless the situation improves as per freedom of association, collective bargaining and acceptable conditions of work.

“Yes the hearing will resume on January 24,” Tim Ryan, Regional Programme Director of the US-based Solidarity Centre, told the Business Times on the sidelines of a 4-day visit and discussion in Doha this week by migration specialists from Asia.The hearing is a resumption of a process that began after the US government accepted for review the AFL-CIO petition in mid 2010 and held a public hearing in Washington in August of the same year. However the review ended (temporarily) when the GSP benefits law was not automatically extended by the US Congress in December 2010 and required to be ‘re-authorised’, which was said to be a formal process. Then in late October, the bill was approved again allowing Sri Lanka and 129 other countries to receive these benefits starting in January 2012. With that, hearing in the petition also automatically resumed.

Mr Ryan, whose organization is part of AFL-CIO and who was present at the August 2010 hearing, said the probe panel has representatives from the US Trade Department, State Department and the Department of Labour. At the last hearing in Washington which lasted about 90 minutes, he said, the Sri Lankan government made an impressive presentation against the allegations. Leslie Devendra, a veteran pro-government trade unionist who appeared in support of the Sri Lankan government, denied the allegations in the petition but also agreed that formation of unions and working hours were still a problem.

These public hearings sometimes take months or years, during which the ‘accused’ country continues to receive the GSP benefits. The January 24 hearing is also for petitions against Bangladesh and Georgia.

The petition against Sri Lanka is a revival of a petition filed by AFL-CIO in 2002 with the exception that the latest one includes formation of unions outside the zones. A review of the 2002 petition was suspended after a few elections to unions were held in the zones.

While the review of the petition didn’t take place for the whole of 2011, there has been some progress in improving the situation in zones and outside. Labour industry officials in Colombo said that there have been several visits by US Trade Department representatives, the government has increased fines against labour violations and opened facilitation centres for workers.

These centres can be used with Board of Investment permission but are yet to be tested by unions as to their effectiveness. Trade union sources, reached by telephone from Colombo, said the AFL-CIO petition though filed in 2008 was not accepted (then) for review. It was eventually accepted by the Trade Office for review only after the war ended in May 2009.

“There was a feeling that (some) US officials were reluctant to proceed with the petition with a war going on,” one trade union source said, adding: “The situation however changed when the government began firming relations with China, Iran and Burma.”

Meanwhile in Colombo, the US embassy issued a statement saying the exporters can file claims for a refund of duties paid on GSP-eligible goods by April 18, 2012. During the whole of 2011, exporters paid normal duties for goods that are entitled to GSP concessions on the basis that once the facility is approved, they would receive a refund of these payments.



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