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WASHINGTON — As fashion week got under way in New York, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni was in the nation’s capital on Thursday addressing the specter that has been hanging over the fashion industry in the past nine months — working conditions and worker safety.

This story first appeared in the September 6, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Moni, in town to speak about Bangladesh’s uncertain political future at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was asked to address the steps her government has taken since the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. fire last November that killed 112 people, and the Rana Plaza Building collapse in late April, which claimed the lives of more than 1,120 people and injured hundreds of others.

The tragedies stoked an international furor, prompting the U.S. to suspend some trade benefits to Bangladesh and prodding the governments of Bangladesh, the U.S. and European Union to collaborate with each other, as well as with retailers, apparel brands, labor rights groups and unions, to improve working conditions and fire and building safety.

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“What we are [doing] now is to ensure the working conditions are safe, that our workers can enjoy their rights fully. We are working on that very diligently with all of the stakeholders,” Moni said. “We have made considerable progress, but it’s not going to happen overnight. There are many thousands of factories and…the painful inspections of all of these buildings to make sure they are safe is not a task that can be achieved overnight.”

She noted that building codes and safety have been ignored for years as the country dealt with atrocities and corruption stemming from the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

“As a result, we have now ended up with probably a lot of buildings which do not conform to our building codes and as a result are unsafe,” Moni said. “So this is a much larger issue, a much larger problem than just a few factories.”

Several initiatives are under way that will improve the garment industry, Moni said, pointing to the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety for the Ready-Made Garment Sector in Bangladesh, which the International Labor Organization is coordinating with employers, labor and the government. There also are two separate industry plans for Bangladesh building and safety involving scores of European retailers and brands and, separately, a scheme launched by a group of North American retailers and brands.

“So we have undertaken this huge activity now with the industry to identify each and every unsafe building.…At the same time, we have undertaken to increase the number of inspectors, building inspectors, factory inspectors, fire inspectors. We have also enhanced the capacity of our fire brigade. So it’s a multipronged effort that we are now going through,” she said.

Directly addressing the U.S. suspension of duty-free benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, Moni said the Bangladesh government is “happy the U.S. has come up with a road map, saying let’s work together so that this suspension can be withdrawn as soon as possible and we can have the GSP facility back.”

The U.S. outlined an action plan in mid-July that Bangladesh needs to take to have its trade benefits restored.

Moni noted that the GSP benefits cover only a small portion of Bangladesh’s exports to the U.S. The country’s apparel exports are not part of the GSP program and do not receive duty-free treatment.

“The GSP in the U.S. covers only .05 percent or less of our exports to the U.S. market,” Moni said. “We think it’s important, but it’s also important that we get duty-free, quota-free access to the U.S. market [for apparel]. That would mean that for the [apparel] export figure of about $4 billion, our products would not have to be levied [duties].”

She said the U.S. imposes duties of about $700 million on Bangladesh’s apparel exports.

“If that is not levied, then at least a part of it can go to benefit these workers who are largely poor women in Bangladesh,” Moni said.

A government wage board could soon make recommendations on a minimum wage increase for the garment sector, she added. The current minimum wage is $38 a month, and workers have staged numerous protests in Bangladesh demanding better salaries.

“I believe they will come back very soon with their recommendations, and we are already discussing this with labor leaders and employers as well,” she said.