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Bangladesh Under the Microscope at Senate Hearing

Obama administration officials told a Senate panel Tuesday that the Bangladesh government hasn’t made enough progress on worker’s rights and labor conditions.

Kalpona Akter, Scott Nova, and Ellen Tauscher.

WASHINGTON — Bangladesh still has work to do.

This story first appeared in the February 12, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That was the message from the Obama administration Tuesday as officials told a Senate panel that the Bangladesh government hasn’t made enough progress on worker’s rights and labor conditions in its textile and apparel industry to have the trade benefits it lost last year restored.

At the same time, officials from two industry initiatives aimed at improving working conditions in Bangladesh went head to head at the hearing defending their respective plans — arguments that indicate the sharp divide that remains in the industry over how to ensure worker and building safety in the Asian nation, as well as the role of unions. The divisions continue to stir questions over how quickly improvements can be made in Bangladesh given two different groups are enforcing separate standards.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held the hearing to take stock of the efforts to improve safety and working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry since the Tazreen Fashions fire in November 2012 and the Rana Plaza building collapse last April that claimed the lives of more than 1,240 workers.

RELATED STORY: Tazreen Owners Jailed 14 Months After Deadly Fire >>

The tragedies have galvanized the international community and turned up the pressure on retailers and brands that source in Bangladesh, as well as the country’s industry trade groups and government. Bangladesh last June lost its trade benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences as a result of the numerous tragedies in its textile and apparel sector, the country’s major employer.

“Last month, the U.S. government, through its interagency process led by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, informed the government of Bangladesh that it had not yet made sufficient progress under the action plan to warrant reinstatement for its trade benefits,” said Eric Biel, acting associate deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the Department of Labor. “To be sure, there has been some progress in some areas of the action plan, including the registration of new trade unions, most of which…appear to be credible and independent; the dropping of charges against [union] leaders in Bangladesh; strong support for progress in the shrimp sector…and a commitment to increase resources on fire and building safety.”

Nisha Desai Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, reported that nearly 100 unions registered in Bangladesh last year, 95 of which are considered “legitimate.”

“Of the three million workers in Bangladesh, we estimate that less than 40,000 are currently represented by unions,” Biswal said. “Of the 3,000 export-oriented factories, just a fraction right now have been inspected, so there is a long way to go and lots of work to be done.”

Biel stressed that more is needed for the Obama administration to restore the GSP benefits, including progress on training and hiring inspectors, which Biel said has been “slow.” He said there have been inadequate labor law reforms enacted by the government, which still has “severe restrictions” on the right to hold strikes and unionization in export processing zones is still prohibited.

RELATED STORY: Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety Says Inspections On Track >>

In separate testimony, representatives from the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety — which includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc., VF Corp. and Target Corp. — and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh — led by IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union and has member companies such as Inditex, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Primark and C&A — squared off over the worker representation component in their respective initiatives.

Menendez questioned Alliance chairman Ellen Tauscher on why the group doesn’t have more union representation and whether it plans to include union members in its safety training teams.

“What is the fundamental concern or problem that the alliance members have vis-à-vis the question of organizing workers and workers having a union ability to be part of the safety and security?” Menendez asked Tauscher. “Even our ambassador [in Bangladesh]…makes it very clear that is a critical part of achieving the goal we all want, which is safety and security. Why is it that the alliance seems to have an arm’s-length view as it relates to organized labor?”

Throughout the hearing, Tauscher defended the alliance’s worker participation committees and level of worker involvement.

“Technically, there is nothing different between the alliance and accord when it comes to standards,” Tauscher said. “We believe we have democratically elected groups, especially worker participation teams. Occupational worker safety teams and unions are a very important part of making sure workers are empowered to speak for themselves, that they know they should not enter a building that is unsafe. We have created a 24-hour hot line that is accessible for all workers.”

Pressed by Menendez on whether the alliance’s safety teams would allow union officials, Tauscher said the group has not yet put its teams together, but is trying to work with the accord to develop one safety training program.

“We fundamentally agree that it is important for workers to be able to speak and that there is no reprisal to them for issues they have about safety,” Tauscher said. “So the answer is we are developing training [teams]. Neither the accord nor the alliance have training systems set up yet.”

Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a signatory of the accord, acknowledged the cooperative spirit between the accord and alliance on technical inspection standards, but warned there are significant differences between the two “in terms of the nature of enforceability of the commitments the signatory companies made.

“Those differences may create significant obstacles to cooperation from the perspective of the accord,” Nova said. “The bottom line is the accord is committed to independent inspections to ensure there is full financial capability by the factories undertaking repairs and renovation, to full public transparency in the reporting process, to a very high level of worker, not just participation, but influence over the operation of the accord. That must remain in place. So cooperation can only happen to the extent those principles are not compromised. I am hopeful more cooperation is possible but also mindful of those distinctions.”