DHAKA, Bangladesh — The tension was palpable here as U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman led a delegation for the second U.S.-Bangladesh dialogue.
The talks began even as there was a citywide shut down called by an 18-party opposition coalition on Sunday. These shut downs are often characterized by not only protests but also the burning of vehicles and bombings.
The talks also took place against the backdrop of the deaths of 1,127 apparel industry workers in the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24, causing a global outcry for improved worker safety and increased pressure on major apparel brands and retailers to take action.
Sherman spoke at the Ruposhi Bangla Hotel here about the timing of her visit, but it was her unequivocal statement on manufacturing in Bangladesh that cheered the representatives of the garment industry.
“We are encouraging international investors not to turn their back on Bangladesh, because the solution is reform, not withdrawal,” she said. “Ultimately, success will depend on the will and commitment of industry, government, civil society and everyday Bangladeshis to come together to change the culture of workplace safety and worker rights in Bangladesh.” RELATED STORY: Report Examines Causes of Rana Plaza Disaster >>
Global brands pulling out from garment manufacturing in Bangladesh and a consequent loss of business have been of grave concern after the incident at Savar. But the pressure on brands has only intensified since the building collapse which followed a fire at Tazreen Fashions that killed 111 workers in November and another at Smart Fashions in January that took seven lives.
Sherman’s roundtable discussion with government, labor, factory owners and buyers on labor issues in the apparel sector were all the more crucial as leaders of the industry have been scrambling for ways to restore some of the lost credibility for a crucial segment of the economy, which provides jobs for more than 3.8 million workers.
“We need to do all that we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Sherman said. “We are working together with the government of Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi and American private sectors, labor and civil society groups, our partners in the international community, and members of the Bangladeshi diaspora.”
She was categorical in assigning responsibility as well as in her offer of friendship. “The responsibility for enforcing robust labor standards is the responsibility of the government of Bangladesh. But as your country faces these challenges, its friends stand ready to help,” she added.
Sherman said support for enhanced safety inspections could be secured from American companies that source garments from factories in Bangladesh. “Engineers and architects from the Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States have stepped up to help recruit a corps of independent safety inspectors. The United States is also funding local labor and civil society organizations to promote respect for fundamental rights at work, including freedom to join a labor union.”
Talking about worker safety, Sherman spoke about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which “shook the conscience of the American public and spurred government and industry to implement crucial reforms” and helped find a way forward.
“We hope that, out of the grief and debris of Rana Plaza, out of the ashes and pain of the Tazreen Fashions and Smart factory fires before it, you can chart a new way forward; that you can build a national consensus on how to improve the lives of workers — indeed the lives of all citizens — in Bangladesh,” she observed.
Over the last few weeks, some dramatic changes have been obvious in Dhaka. Following a delegation from the International Labor Organization after the incident at Savar, the government formed a wage board to look at the issue of higher wages in the sector. The freedom of association for labor and the need for trade unions was also discussed by the cabinet and is expected to come up for approval before the Parliament session in June.
Sherman reiterated the importance of reforms for workers and the industry. “They are also critical to restoring Bangladesh’s image in the eyes of the international community,” she said.
Parallel to the meetings with Sherman was another set of talks with a U.S. business delegation that attended seminars, met officials and leaders of the industry and got a sense of the business environment in the country.
Sherman spoke about “robust and growing bilateral ties between the United States and Bangladesh”; the two countries do more than $6 billion in trade every year. She unveiled several new programs, including a $2 million initiative as part of President Obama’s Global Health Initiative, and another $8 million for the Global Climate Change Initiative. Discussions during the two-day dialogue were about trade and investment, governance and development, security cooperation and regional integration.
“But as a steadfast friend of your country, I must be frank and say that the ultimate success of the Bangladesh story is not guaranteed,” Sherman warned.
“My colleagues and I, along with a great many Bangladeshis, have watched with dismay as the streets of Dhaka have been shut down by hartal after hartal, by angry demonstration after angry demonstration. I cannot presume to tell the people of Bangladesh or your leaders what issues demand attention, what wrongs must be righted, or what approach your country must take as it faces the grave challenges of the future. In Bangladesh, as in any democracy, this is for the people alone to decide,” she said.
While U.S. Ambassador Dan Mozena introduced Sherman at the speech organized by the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, the delegation also included Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Karen Hanrahan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Kelly Clements, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Robert Ichord, Principal Director to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and South East Asia Brigadier General Joaquin Malavet, State Department Political and Military Affairs Office Director Vangala Ram and USAID Director Richard Greene.
Sherman spoke about a growing relationship with Bangladesh, especially while ramping up American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.
“To borrow a phrase from Indian Prime Minister Singh, we dream of a world where one can have breakfast in Kolkata, lunch in Dhaka, and dinner in Rangoon,” she said.
The U.S. State Department on Monday noted that U.S. and Bangladesh government officials said they discussed several trade and investment issues, including Bangladesh’s request for duty-free access on the country’s garment exports to the U.S.
The discussions came against the backdrop of global scrutiny over Bangladesh’s record on workers’ rights and safety and at a time when Bangladesh stands to lose other trade benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences.
The Obama administration is reviewing whether to consider withdrawal, suspension or limitation of the benefits to Bangladesh. A decision is expected at the end of June. The GSP program in the U.S. does not provide duty-free benefits for apparel, Bangladesh’s largest export.
The Bangladesh government appears to be seeking separate duty-free access for its apparel exports from the U.S., but it could not be learned if that has been a long-standing request. The U.S. will likely scrutinize any request for duty-free access for apparel in light of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh.
The cochairs said they also discussed the status of labor law reform, the registration of unions in the garment sector, fire and structural safety standards and the prospects for establishing an ILO “Better Work” program.
Breaking News: @louisvuitton's men's artistic director @mrkimjones is leaving the French fashion house after nearly 7 years. Jones joined Louis Vuitton in 2011, following a three year tenure as creative director of British luxury goods brand Alfred Dunhill. Jones is to exit Louis Vuitton after showing his fall 2018 collection for the brand in Paris on Thursday. Read the full exclusive story on WWD.com. Link in bio. #wwdnews #wwdfashion
For men’s fall 2018, @giuseppezanotti drew on elements from streetwear, sport, biker, combat and rock ‘n’ roll. Pictured here are a pair of shoes from the collection, featuring zippers, rhinestones, and silver hardware. Head to WWD.com to see a roundup of the accessories from Milan’s men’s fall 2018 shows. #wwdfashion (📷: Andrea Delb)
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of @ralphlauren’s snowboarding collection, the brand is mining its archives. The iconic brand is reintroducing vintage styles and dropping new designs for a color capsule that will be available in Ralph Lauren stores and @openingceremony on January 25. The capsule will consist of 10 pieces, including the Snow Beach Pullover, pictured here, which is a collector’s item that rapper Raekwon wore in Wu-Tang Clan’s “Can It Be All So Simple” video. #wwdfashion (📷: Tom Gould)
For @rochasofficial’s pre-fall 2018 collection, creative director Alessandro Dell’Acqua channeled the sophisticated and intriguing Catherine Denevue in the film “Belle de Jour.” Polished collarless coats, midi skirts, suits and ’60s graphic motifs were all featured in the collection, adding a sense of discreet luxury. See the rest of the photos on WWD.com #wwdfashion
“We tried to produce clothing of that couture quality, but the most daunting part was that we only had a matter of days [to do it],” said costume designer Lou Eyrich, who recreated Gianni Versace’s iconic looks for @americancrimestoryfx. Eyrich searched online retailers and vintage shops for original pieces from the design house and for @penelopecruzoficial, who plays Donatella Versace. Head to WWD.com to read how she created the Versace world. #wwdfashion
Only three months after her stellar debut catwalk season, @kaiagerber has inked her first big design collaboration –– with @karllagerfeld. The collection blends Lagerfeld’s Parisian chic aesthetic and the model’s signature West Coast casual style via RTW, accessories, footwear and more. The #KarlLagerfeldxKaia collection will launch in September with a series of events. Get all the details on WWD.com. #wwdnews #wwdfashion
Harrods plans to remove the famous statue of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed from the bottom of the Egyptian escalators and hand it back to Mohamed Al-Fayed. “We are very proud to have played our role in celebrating the lives of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed at Harrods and to have welcomed people from around the world to visit the memorial for the past 20 years,” said Michael Ward, Harrods managing director. “With the announcement of the new official memorial statue to Diana, Princess of Wales at Kensington Palace, we feel that the time is right to return this memorial to Mr. Al Fayed and for the public to be invited to pay their respects at the palace.” More on the news, with reporting by @loreleimarfil, at WWD.com. #wwdnews