By  on March 28, 2013

WASHINGTON — Bangladesh government officials and the country’s main apparel organization faced a barrage of questions and scrutiny from U.S. government and labor officials on Thursday — the first time they have been publicly made to account for steps they are taking to crack down on rampant garment factory fires after two fatal blazes killed 118 workers and intensified calls to revoke the country’s trade benefits.

The tragic fires at Tazreen Fashion Ltd. that killed 111 garment workers in November, followed by another tragic fire at Smart Export Garment Ltd. that killed seven women in January, were a key focus of the hearing and have raised new concerns about Bangladesh’s human and workers’ rights record and placed its U.S. trade benefits in jeopardy. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office is reviewing whether to revoke or suspend duty-free trade benefits given to Bangladesh under the Generalized System of Preferences, a program that provides duty-free benefits for about 4,800 products from 131 designated countries.

“The GSP subcommittee [at USTR] believes that the lack of progress by the government of Bangladesh in addressing worker rights issues in the country warrants consideration of possible withdrawal, suspension or limitation of Bangladesh’s trade benefits under GSP,” the agency said.

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Any change to Bangladesh’s status under GSP would require a determination by President Obama.

Apparel, textile and footwear imports are not eligible for GSP benefits and would not be affected directly by a negative USTR ruling, but the ramifications of withdrawal of the benefits could further hurt the country’s reputation and have a chilling effect on orders by retailers and brands in the country.

“It is inexcusable that in the 21st century factories in any country have been allowed to operate with locked and blocked exits,” said Celeste Drake, policy specialist for trade and international economics at the AFL-CIO, which originally filed a petition against Bangladesh’s worker and labor rights in 2007 under the GSP program seeking to have its benefits withdrawn or limited. “[One hundred eleven] lives should not…have been lost in the Tazreen fire in order to convince the government to begin implementing fire-safety precautions that have been common knowledge for over a century.”

Drake said the time for “granting the government [of Bangladesh] the benefit of doubt has passed,” adding, “This petition has been open since 2007. During that time the government of Bangladesh has not engaged in sustained and meaningful efforts to address specific failures to afford the right of freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively and the right to acceptable conditions of work with respect minimum wages, hours of work and occupational and safety health.”

Mahbub Ahmed, secretary of Bangladesh’s Commerce Ministry, outlined the steps the government has taken in the area of fire safety. He said, “We have just heard a number of issues and concerns related to worker rights, and the occupational and fire safety situation in Bangladesh, and I assure you we have taken due note of all of those. But this is such a complex situation, based on circumstances and incidences that are not systematic or representative of an economy-side situation in Bangladesh. We have reason to believe we are taking the right steps and we are determined to continue to do so in the future.”

Ahmed touted a reduction in the number of garment factory fires over the past four years. He said the number of fire incidents has declined to 97 in 2012 from 293 in 2009. However, according to his government’s own data in his testimony at USTR offices, the death toll rose.

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In 2009 there were two deaths, followed by 51 fatalities in 2010. In 2012, the government recorded 111 deaths from one fire, Tazreen. Ahmed said between 2009 and 2012, there were 780 fires without associated deaths.

He also touted the launch of a national action plan for the garment industry that includes the launch of a fire-safety hotline that he told U.S. officials has been placed in every garment factory. Ahmed assured officials that amendments to Bangladesh’s labor law, including giving the workers in export-processing zones the right to strike, are expected to come to a vote in June and said the establishment of a “Better Works” program by the International Labor Organization is under way.

“We appreciate that the government has taken measures since Tazreen, especially to follow up and investigate and monitor factories, but it would be helpful in post-hearing submission to learn more about whether there are cases in which actual violations were found, fines imposed, which of those have been pursued in the courts and whether factories have been closed,” said William Jackson, deputy assistant USTR for GSP and chair of the GSP subcommittee.

Shafiul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association, who also testified at the USTR hearing, said fire safety has “become a major concern.” A measure he touted was the government’s approval of 532 acres of land that will be set up as a “Specialized Economic Zone” for the apparel industry.

“This is going to be a long-term solution to ensure safety and sustainability in this industry,” he said. “Vulnerable factories” designated by a task force will be given priority to relocate to the zone.

He also said the BGMEA has implemented a fire-safety initiative, dubbed the “Crash Program,” which will train garment factory officials and owners on fire safety, with a goal of training 35,200 people. To date, he said 3,500 people have been trained under the program.

“The Tazreen incident has shaken us up and it is a wake up call for the country,” said Islam.

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