WASHINGTON — A delegation from Bangladesh led by Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed visited here last week and met with calls for more business transparency and better working conditions in the Asian nation’s apparel industry.

This story first appeared in the June 16, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The visit by the 10-member delegation — which included the presidents of the two important garment federations in Bangladesh, the fire chief, as well as factory owners, and a trade union leader — was seen as a crucial step forward after a difficult year in which a flurry of activity has taken place in the industry.

“It is a fact that we have taken a lot of action,” Ahmed told WWD, having flown in for a five-day trip to the U.S. for negotiations and a sharing of perspectives. He came directly from Beijing, fresh from an agreement with the Chinese government for a $3 billion investment in a garment park in Bangladesh, which he said would provide 300,000 jobs in the apparel sector. The garment industry in Bangladesh employs 3.8 million workers, 80 percent of whom are women. Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of garments in the world, after China.

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While there are differences between the industry’s stakeholders — with the factory owners, the government and labor holding different edges of the same cloth — the delegation maintained a cohesive front. Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said factory owners were being more open to the process of securing greater safety in their factories and the fact that trade unions needed to be allowed. “The process of change is on,” he said, reiterating the government’s position.

Over discussions with Congressman Sander Levin, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, U.S. Associate Deputy Undersecretary Eric Biel, Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Cathy Novelli and several retailer associations, different aspects of the industry’s progress came up for review.

In Ahmed’s meeting with assistant secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal, a variety of topics of bilateral and regional interest came up, although discussions focused on increasing bilateral trade. They also included a focus on improving the health and safety of workers and safeguarding workers’ rights.

Despite the many changes in the last 14 months, it was obvious the process is a work in progress.

As Levin said, a day after his meeting with the delegation: “There seems to be significant progress, but there is still much left to be done.” He said that although safety issues appeared to be improving, there was a “sharp contrast” with what needed to be done for the protection of workers’ rights.

Responding to the contention that more than 160 trade unions had been registered over the last year, compared with eight in previous years, Levin said, “Registration is one thing, but giving workers their rights is quite another.”

He expressed concern over the “evidence of increased violence and the failure of the government to respond to this increasing violence as workers try to organize.”

The delegation included Sukkur Mahmud, president of the Jatiya Saramik League, who represented the workers and who expressed his satisfaction that things were improving substantially, in terms of the implementation of the amendment of the labor law allowing the formation of trade unions as well as a wage increase for workers.

Mesbah Rabin, managing director in Bangladesh for the Alliance for Worker Safety, who also was part of the delegation, said 90 percent of the factory inspections had been completed by the alliance. He pointed out that giving workers a voice was part of the change, with a hotline set up in more than 50 factories so that workers could have direct access for help. He said the government was in the process of implementing a similar hotline.

The retailer associations — including the National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and the American Apparel & Footwear Association — brought up some of their own concerns, which the delegation addressed: That the trade unions still had a long way to go; that the plan to hire inspectors for factories was moving along slowly, but was happening, and that factory owners who had been chided for not being serious enough about installing better safety equipment were indeed beginning to see the necessity for change.

Rabin pointed out that “as for the complaints that some remediation is slow, some of the sophisticated fire technology is unheard of in the country; sprinkler systems, for example, are not manufactured in the country.”

Islam agreed. “It will take some time, but within one year things will change radically. Some of the factories that have closed will move to new areas, that is also part of this change,” he said.

The delegation arrived in Washington after meetings in Las Vegas at the National Fire Protection Association convention, to look at how the problems facing factory owners can be resolved — sprinklers are being introduced in factories along with fire doors and other requirements. Some of these were part of the Bangladesh Building Code, but had not been implemented over the years. “These problems have not been resolved, but they are not insurmountable,” Brigadier General Ali Ahmed Khan, director general, Fire Service and Civil Defence, told WWD.

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