WASHINGTON — The U.S. keeps upping the pressure on Bangladesh over the safety of its apparel industry.
The U.S. Trade Representative’s office said Wednesday that the Asian nation has failed to meet several criteria outlined in an action plan on improving safety in the garment industry and reforming labor laws, leaving in place a suspension of its U.S. trade benefits that the Bangladeshi government has lobbied to have restored.
The U.S. suspended Bangladesh’s duty-free benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences last June, citing pervasive garment factory safety problems, including the collapse of the Rana Plaza building complex in April and the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. fire in November 2012, which combined claimed the lives of more than 1,240 workers. It also cited the failure of industry and government to allow Bangladeshi workers to exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively in the apparel sector.
Following the suspension of GSP benefits, the U.S. and Bangladesh signed the Bangladesh Action Plan last July, under which President Obama could consider reinstatement of the GSP benefits.
As part of its six-month interagency review released Wednesday, U.S. officials concluded that while Bangladesh has made some progress, it has failed to implement “substantial parts” of the action plan, developed in the wake of the two factory tragedies and an escalation of violence against labor activists.
Among the issues cited by the Obama administration were that Bangladesh is behind on safety inspections of garment factories and has also been “slow to respond” to allegations of violence against labor activists.
“The Obama administration has been engaging the Bangladesh government and stakeholders over the past year to press for changes to address the worker rights and worker safety issues that led to the President’s decision to suspend GSP trade benefits,” said USTR Michael Froman. “We are seeing some improvements that move us closer to our shared goal of protecting workers from another workplace tragedy such as the April 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, including a significant increase in the registration of unions. However, we remain concerned about the large number of factories that have yet to be inspected, the lack of progress on needed labor law reforms and continuing reports of harassment of and violence against labor activists who are attempting to exercise their rights.”
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While the punitive action by the administration has affected as much as $34.7 million in Bangladeshi imports into the U.S. under GSP, the hit to the country’s economy was considered modest since its largest export — apparel — is not covered by the U.S. trade preference program and remains unaffected. The top GSP imports from Bangladesh included tobacco, sports equipment, porcelain china and plastic products.
But the suspension of preferences has widely been seen as a move to bring about broader labor reforms in Bangladesh.
As part of the review, the administration also concluded that the Bangladeshi government “needs to develop a credible and effective mechanism for responding to and addressing allegations of unfair labor practices.”
It also said Bangladesh has not met its commitment of hiring additional safety inspectors and has not advanced important labor law reforms called for in the action plan, including changes to ensure workers’ rights to collectively bargain and unionize in Export Processing Zones.
The review cited several instances where the government of Bangladesh has made progress including: the registration of about 120 new unions in the garment sector, the withdrawal of criminal charges against some labor activists, collaboration with the retailers and apparel brands inspecting thousands of garment factories and the suspension of operations at 20 garment factories found to be in “imminent danger of structural failure or other catastrophic incident.”
The decision by the Obama administration was a blow to Bangladesh but the entire GSP program expired on July 31, 2013, and has not been renewed by Congress.
The Bangladeshi government, as part of a National Tripartite Plan of Action led by the International Labor Organization, is inspecting a portion of the country’s estimated 4,000 garment factories. The remaining factories are being inspected by two separate initiatives. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, led by IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union and more than 180 brands and retailers, has inspected about 800 of the 1,500 factories its member companies use. A second industry initiative known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has inspected more than 500 of a total of 600 factories.
In a separate action on Capitol Hill Wednesday, several top House Democrats made public a letter to Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, citing serious concerns that the nation’s commerce minister and the head of the country’s main garment association are acting against a labor leader that shared information about antiunion violence with U.S. lawmakers.
Reps. George Miller (D., Calif.), Sander Levin (D., Mich.) and four other lawmakers alleged in the letter that Tofail Ahmed, Bangladesh’s Commerce Minister, and Atiqul Islam, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, are targeting the labor leader.
Ahmed and Islam were both part of a 10-person delegation that visited the U.S., including a stop in Washington, in mid-June. The delegation met with Levin, Froman and officials from the Labor and State departments as well as several retail and brand trade associations to discuss the industry’s progress.
The lawmakers said they shared information with the delegation about antilabor violence and were assured that the government would promptly address the claims and resolve them. But instead of trying to resolve the antiunion claims, Tofail and Islam allegedly called for the criminal prosecution of the union leader who imparted the information to the U.S. lawmakers, the lawmakers claimed, citing local Bangladeshi news reports.
“You might imagine our shock when we saw several accounts in the press last week reporting that your commerce minister and the BGMEA president, rather than calling for the authorities to investigate intimidation, engaged in intimidation of labor activists themselves,” the lawmakers wrote. “As you are likely aware, a key element of the GSP action plan is to ‘ensure protection of unions and their members from antiunion discrimination and reprisal.’ What is especially troubling in this specific case is that the allegations of violence cited by the minister and BGMEA president were those we passed along to them, per their request.”
They asked Hasina to give her personal assurances that government authorities will properly investigate and respond to the allegations brought forward by the National Garment Workers Federation.